[Disponible en español]

decoirated initial 'T' he following tirade by Thomas Hughes's against the effects of the railway age — "these racing railroad times" — on student's activities during university vacations appears rather oddly within Tom Brown's Schooldays, his novel about the effect of Thomas Arnold, the reforming headmaster of Rugby, on one boy's life and character. This passage divides into two sections, the first a catalogue of the contemporary male undergraduate's activities outside England and the second a criticism of the way the fast pace of modern life has led to a loss of every British boy's and man's heritage.

O young England! young England! you who are born into these racing railroad times, when there's a Great Exhibition, or some monster sight, every year, and you can get over a couple of thousand miles of ground for three pound ten in a five-weeks' holiday, why don't you know more of your own birthplaces? You're all in the ends of the earth, it seems to me, as soon as you get your necks out of the educational collar, for midsummer holidays, long vacations, or what not — going round Ireland, with a return ticket, in a fortnight; dropping your copies of Tennyson on the tops of Swiss mountains; or pulling down the Danube in Oxford racing boats. And when you get home for a quiet fortnight, you turn the steam off, and lie on your backs in the paternal garden, surrounded by the last batch of books from Mudie's library, and half bored to death. Well, well! I know it has its good side. You all patter French more or less, and perhaps German; you have seen men and cities, no doubt, and have your opinions, such as they are, about schools of painting, high art, and all that; have seen the pictures of Dresden and the Louvre, and know the taste of sour krout. All I say is, you don't know your own lanes and woods and fields. Though you may be choke-full of science, not one in twenty of you knows where to find the wood-sorrel, or bee-orchis, which grow in the next wood, or on the down three miles off, or what the bog-bean and wood-sage are good for. And as for the country legends, the stories of the old gable-ended farmhouses, the place where the last skirmish was fought in the civil wars, where the parish butts stood, where the last highwayman turned to bay, where the last ghost was laid by the parson, they're gone out of date altogether.

Unlike the rest of the novel, this paragraph comes packed with allusions to contemporary life, most of which Hughes appears to dislike. To begin with, Hughes addresses his young male readers — present and future undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge, one assumes, since school boys could not wander around Europe by themselves — as "O young England! young England!," and this is in part very ironic because Hughes, the liberal reformer who sympathized with the Chartists and defended unions, addresses his audience with the name of that splinter group of the Tories to which young Disraeli belonged. He begins by attacking the those things found threatening by so many Victorians: the effects of rapid transportation, the speeding up of life and loss of the old rhythms based on agriculture, increased number of books, and above all internationalism and the loss of England's supposed cultural isolation. All these things, he finds, are responsible for his young readers, the future leaders of England, losing touch with native British landscapes and any knowledge of the history that took place within them.

Of course, like much nostalgia in any age, Hughes mourns a past that never was. True, a small number of serious Oxbridge students, particularly those like Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough hoping to win positions at a university, hiked around Great Britain during vacations, taking a few books with them so they could prepare themselves for the short, intense terms at Oxford and Cambridge (these universities have three short terms during which students have to submit two essays each week; to do a competent job often requires that one study during vacations, or "vacs," as they are known.) But during most of Victoria's reign a good many students at these prestigious universities who were not preparing to be clergymen devoted most of their time in and out of term to drinking, gambling, and whoring. Many wealthy young men, who used university as a kind of finishing school, left without taking the final-year examination and therefore without degrees. One also wonders how many of the serious students, those like, say, Newman, Keble, Pusey, and their devout friends, had all that much interest in "the country legends, the stories of the old gable-ended farmhouses, the place where the last skirmish was fought in the civil wars."

Exactly what are the activities with which mid-Victorian undergraduates supposedly wasted their time?

Given that Tom Brown's Schooldays mentions in passing that Rugby's graduates go out into the Empire, spreading what Thomas Arnold's son, Matthew, would have ironically called sweetness and light, modern readers might find themselves astonished, even horrified, by Hughes's willful ignorance of foreign cultures and contemporary knowledge of many subjects. Of course, Hughes is here pleading with his readers not to forget the local history that he believes to be the essence of Englishness, an approach quite in keeping with that widespread European nineteenth-century nationalism that sought to find cultural unity in a nation's roots — in its folklore, myths, history, customs, and vernacular architecture. It makes perfect sense to urge that people should learn something about their own country before learning about others.

Hughes's disturbing narrowness derives from what is at the same time his strongest and weakest point as a writer on secondary education — his belief that the purpose of Rugby and other public schools (and, one assumes, all schooling) is chiefly to nurture young people's character. That's a fine goal, surely, but Hughes, who seems most concerned with healthy young boys and men with no intellectual interests, ends up advocating a surprisingly anti-intellectual form of education — as if no young people had intellectual or aesthetic interests worth considering. Such a philistine approach to education (again to resort to the Rugbean Matthew Arnold's terminology) turns out to be doubly ironic, since under the guidance of John Lucas Tupper, a minor sculptor, poet, and friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, Rugby pioneered art education for the young; second, Hughes, helped found the Workingmen's College, which taught a wide range of subjects, and for a decade was its principal!


Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Electronic version from Project Gutenberg produced by Gil Jaysmith and David Widger.

Last modified 28 June 2006