enerally, Victorian boys of good families were first called on to prove themselves, both morally and physically, at school. Parents knew well that this was in every sense a testing time for their sons (see "The Public School Experience in Victorian Literature"). Success in adjusting to the new ambience is the first challenge for the schoolboy hero throughout the period. Here, an updated version of the chivalric ideal of masculinity held sway. Again, however, there were problems.
Thomas Hughes only partially succeeds in creating a strong hero in Tom Brown 's Schooldays. The virtues that Tom develops during this truly testing period bring him perilously close to his delicate, pious young friend George Arthur (usually called Arthur), and all the other emasculated boys of children's fiction. The two boys' symbiotic relationship is similar to that found in Dinah Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman, between John and his invalid friend Phineas Fletcher, for instance. Tom's new charge takes the edge off his high spirits, as indeed the "Doctor" had intended it to do. Once yoked with Arthur, Tom also comes under the sway of his mother Frances. Impressively tall yet "slight and fair, with masses of golden hair," a "broad white forehead," blue eyes and a "lovely tender mouth" (Hughes 284), Frances Arthur becomes the boys' good angel. Anne Brontë's Helen Huntingdon and her never-very-masculine son Arthur in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall come to mind again, especially as Tom, despite being older than little Arthur Huntingdon Jr. in the earlier novel, seems to dwindle in this figure's striking presence.
"The Fight" by Hugh Thomson in Tom Brown's Schooldays (Boston: LeRoy Philips, 1920), 323 (from the Internet Archive). [Click on the thumnbail for larger image.]
Tom Brown does keep his physical strength: his famous battle with 'Slogger' Williams demonstrates that neither he nor his author is a pacifist. Indeed, fighting is even seen as "proof of the highest courage." But this is only if it is "done for true Christian motives" (268). And this brings in another problem. The muscular Christianity of the mid-century, centering on Charles Kingsley and including Thomas Hughes, yoked the ideal of moral leadership to the traditional values of selflessness and humility. The "Doctor" himself, with his "tall gallant form" (127), is the most charismatic of authority figures, first introduced to "School-house" as "a strong true man, and a wise one too, and a public-school man too" (113). Yet even he is seen as powerful not in his own right. He stands in the chapel "Sunday after Sunday, witnessing and pleading for his Lord, the King of righteousness and love and glory, with whose spirit he was filled, and in whose power he spoke" (127; emphasis added). Boys like Tom Brown and Arthur who want to "stand by and follow the Doctor"( 129) are, like Hughes himself, acolytes serving at the altar of a greater God.
Little wonder, then, that Arthur's speech about his encounter with death is full of Miltonic phrases and Biblical cadences, removing any appeal that the boy might have for the reader as a boy. "I can do great things, I will do great things," Arthur claims here (281). But the claim is never substantiated, and the suspicion is that it never can be. In Hughes's far less popular sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, Tom becomes much less interesting, while Arthur's place is taken by another friend whose chief role is to oversee Tom Brown's love life. Proving oneself as an individual when the whole drive is towards "unselfishly submitting one's individuality to the service of a common cause" (Vance 151) seems next to impossible.
Left to right: (a) "Steerforth and Mr Mell" by "Phiz," showing classroom ructions
Copperfield as Steerforth stands up to the ineffectual teacher at Salem House. Mr Mell
has a protective hand on David's head, but Steerforth is clearly the more charismatic
figure. (b) A very different champion from Steerforth: a very stolid-looking Dobbin in Vanity
Fair is quietly reading under a tree when called upon to defend little George Osborne
from the bullying Cuff (Thackeray's own illustration in the 2-volume Smith, Elder ed. of
1878, I: 43). [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Among the major novelists, those who pay most attention to the impact of their male protagonists' school years are Dickens and Thackeray. Ominously, the latter's Vanity Fair bears the well-known subtitle, A Novel Without A Hero. When the two candidates for the role meet at school, the deficiencies of each quickly become apparent. One, gallant little George Osborne, seems to have "every perfection," but is already too conscious of his "superior merit" (84-85); the other, kind and generous Dobbin, the despised son of a tradesman, steps in to stop George being bullied, but is inordinately grateful when his stock rises as a result. There is something at once comic and pathetic about the way "Figs" showers gifts and affection on his younger schoolfriend. From start to finish, Dobbin is chock-full of the kind of solid and stolid virtues which entirely preclude self-promotion, and even encourage a degree of passivity. It is no suprise that later, at Waterloo, it is valiant Captain George who avenges Ensign Stubble's injury, while Captain Dobbin quietly carries the lad to the surgeon; nor that in the end George Osborne Jr, a "dashing young gentleman" of the old stamp (797), is the one to carry the promise of the future, not dear old Dobbin, who has taken an early retirement and is now engaged in writing "A History of the Punjab." Significantly, Thackeray prefaces his narrative with the complaint: "Since the author of 'Tom Jones' was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN."
The same author's Pendennis fares little better: "Alas, the life of such boys does not bear telling altogether!" cries Thackeray at the beginning of his academic career (1: 164). As a youth, Pendennis is repeatedly foolish: his courtship of the ridiculous 'Miss Fotheringay' is followed by his being ignominiously 'plucked' at Oxbridge, and then by other eqaully misplaced romantic fixations.
As for Dickens's contemporaneous David Copperfield, this unfortunate lad seems to get even less from his school life than Dobbin and Pendennis. His sufferings at Salem House under the regime of the horrible Mr Creakle are explored in some depth, and well known. In contrast, his triumphs at Dr Strong's, after the intial sense of difference from these more privileged pupils has passed, are quickly told. But neither do much for his development. He remians hopelessly naive. The humiliations he suffers en route to Salem House in Chapter V are almost repeated after he takes leave of Dr Strong in Chapter 19. On the trip to Salem House he is horribly cramped in the coach by his fellow-travellers, and by an old lady's basket. A waiter then eats his chops at Yarmouth. After taking leave of Dr Strong, David loses the box-seat he has already paid for, and the waiter at the Golden Cross gives him the dregs of various bottles of wine. Nothing much seems to have changed. At Salem House, David had fallen under the spell of James Steerforth; he is as overwhelmed as ever when he meets him again, just after leaving his second school, in a London theatre: "I went up to him at once, with a fast-beating heart, and said: 'Steerforth! won't you speak to me?'" (345). He could be a new boy at Salem House again: Steerforth calls him by his old nickname of Daisy again, and actually asks him not to be so "overpowered" (346). Much later, bending down from his "gallant grey" (547) by the side of Julia Mills's and Dora Spenlow's carriage, David still cuts a ridiculously youthful and youthfully self-conscious figure in his own memory.
All this is perfectly psychologically convincing. But the fact is that, like Thackeray's Dobbin and Pendennis, David never quite emerges from his tricky adolescence. What is to be done with such youths, then? In the end, there is only one answer: they must be brought home again. Like their respective authors, all three eventually retreat into writing, which is the sole occupation of David and Pendennis, and one in which they both achieve some success. But these two acquire their chief security when they return to and marry the girls whom they have looked on as sisters. With understandable confusion, Laura introduces herself thus even after she has agreed to marry Pendennis: "I am — that is, I was — that is, I am Arthur's sister" (2: 728). The description of Dickens's masculine ideal in terms of "embers on the hearth" (Rosen 218) therefore fits both: David concludes with a gush of adoration for Agnes as his lamp burns low; Pendennis, in the very last words of Thackeray's novel, "does not claim to be a hero, but only a man and [significantly] a brother."
- Constructing Personal and Social Identities in Dickens' David Copperfield (this more recent essay claims that David does realise "the Carlylean Ideal" of the hero.
- Thomas Arnold in Tom Brown's Schooldays
Last modified 15 January 2011