Many films have already been made of this novel, some of them adhering more faithfully to the story-line than others. One very recent film-version has, I believe, been largely successful, since those involved in the making of it were not afraid to apply Occam’s Razor to it in a fairly ruthless way. It doesn’t stick to the story in the novel, since it makes Flashman a much more central figure and has him ending up in a fight with Tom Brown, the eponymous ‘hero’ of the novel, in what amounts to a genuine climax. It is clear, well-structured and simplified in such a way that its force is not lost in a welter of irrelevances. Paradoxically, the film’s simplicity allows us to glimpse something of the complexity of Tom Brown’s own character and that, for a TV rendering of ‘a classic’ is very refreshing. It is not simply a panegyric to an ‘exemplary English schoolboy’ – which he is often portrayed as – but the story of a boy who is an embodiment of the way public schools socialise their pupils into adopting their own collective ethos and becoming one-sided in the process. The film is the 2005 BBC version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays in which a very young Alex Pettyfer plays the part of Tom Brown and Stephen Fry Doctor Arnold.
But before we start talking about the actual film, I think we ought to say something about the institution of the English Public School. I have often wondered why the English ruling-classes would send their children to such barbaric institutions where corporal punishment was rife and bullying rampant. After all, the only subject on the curriculum seemed to be Greek. Of course, it was a tradition, and the aim of that tradition was to turn boys into men and make them fit to be fully paid up members of a class which needed ruthless warriors, rather than 'milksops' and 'mummy's boys', to stay on top and hold down the local uppity ‘prols’, not to mention an empire. The ideal therefore was a Spartan one. Take children away from their parental homes and throw them together to learn the hard way about what it takes to be a ruler. Indeed, this aspect of the English public school is brought out fairly early on in the film when the new headmaster, Dr Arnold, is attempting to impress on the other senior masters of the school the need for reform. As one master puts it, public school “readies them (the boys) for the responsibilities of life, of Empire.” And another master says. “Have you actually ever met a schoolboy, headmaster? They are the riotous natives, we the occupying force.” This was during a discussion about whether the boys should be left to police themselves, as was traditional, or whether they should be policed by the masters in a ‘spirit of pastoral care’ and turned into Christian gentlemen, as Doctor Arnold thought should happen – at least in the film.
As someone who went to a boarding-school himself (though by no means a public school), I think it is obvious why the boys were left to police themselves. It saved work for the masters. At my school, it was all done through a prefect-system whereby bigger and stronger boys were given the task of keeping us ‘riotous natives’ in order. Authority maintains itself through such forms of delegation. You couldn’t complain, because the prefect’s word was always the one that was believed by the masters, who, quite naturally, preferred the quiet life to investigating the cause of the complaints. This basically is what is being discussed in the film. Doctor Arnold wants to change things, and he is meeting up with resistance based on the quite natural desire of the masters not to add to their own workload. Human nature seems to have a decided bent towards inertia and keeping things as they are.
This is basically the school which Tom Brown enters in the 1830s – a brutal place where bullying is rife, though it goes against the grain to report it. Apparently, the real Rugby School was a lot worse than any fictional representation has been, but the authorities ignored the abuses because of the unwritten rule against informing and running to masters “with your fingers in your eyes” among the boys. In the film, Tom meets with his nemesis, Flashman, fairly early on in a confrontation which says quite a lot about both. Tom is timid, but stands his ground, and this incenses Flashman, who develops a particular animus towards Brown because Brown does not automatically submit to him. He is therefore marked out as the “cockiest blackguard in the house” and an “uppity little cad”. That his refusal to submit is very timid to begin with is of no account. Flashman senses a certain resistance in Brown which he does not find pleasing and he therefore resolves to make life miserable for him.
But Brown is not just interesting in terms of his confrontation with Flashman. He is interesting also because of the way he wants to fit in and be ‘a man’ among his fellow schoolmates - a necessary part of the whole socialising process. He comes to the school bringing all sorts of pious resolutions, including a determination to pray for his mother and father before he goes to bed every night, which he almost immediately abandons once he is called a milksop and mummy’s boy for doing so. What’s clear is that he has a strong need to belong to a peer-group and thereby succumbs to the pressure to conform to its requirements even if it means stealing chickens from local farmers, which was apparently a tradition in the school and, after he is caned for it by the headmaster, becoming a rebel, vociferous in his antagonism towards authority and instigating a riot which gets out of control. Obviously, his desire to conform, does not mean a desire to please the authorities of the school, only a desire to fit in with his schoolmates and not seem a 'mummy's boy'. If he began life at Rugby as a timid submissive boy, this doesn’t last very long. On top of this, his new truculent manner, antagonises Flashman who, after Brown has defied him once too often, has him roasted in front of an open fire and so badly burnt that he faints and needs treatment for burns. He becomes, as the headmaster, who basically likes him, says an agitator and thief, who is at the risk of being sent down or expelled from the school. Instead, he is sent back home to his father for a period of reflection with a letter explaining what has happened.
Doctor Arnold, however, is not the ogre and tyrant he has come to appear in Tom Brown’s eyes. He wants to end the regime of bullying that takes place in the school, as well as some of the more enjoyable pastimes of the boys like gambling on horses, hunting with beagles, distilling and brewing spirits and beer, drinking and the ownership of guns. Dr Arnold wants to turn Rugby School into a school for Christian gentlemen and end some if its traditional practices, including the stealing of chickens from local farmers, which the boys do as a prank. His intentions are virtuous Christian ones, but of course, the boys do not see it like that and fall in behind Tom when he accuses Dr Arnold in front of the other boys and the school-captain Frobisher, of destroying the school with his reforms - which is what sets off the riot. It must not be assumed that Dr. Arnold is simply a killjoy. He can be magnanimous and generous when the occasion arises and even admit to being wrong, as he does after giving the young “Tadpole” a caning on the hand for apparently preparing the ‘wrong’ passage of Xenophon and ‘lying’ about it. He may be a little too eager to turn the boys into Christian gentlemen, but there is nothing vicious about him, as Tom later comes to realise. Furthermore, he has a lot more insight into the behaviour of Tom Brown than Tom Brown himself does, which is why he is reluctant to expel him. As he explains to Brown’s father in the letter Brown takes back to him, “I believe your son has all the potential qualities that a Rugby man should have. Great courage, decency of instinct, fairness, thoughtfulness. I sincerely hope you find it in your heart to send him back to us.” This assessment of his own character read to him by his own father is probably enough to make Brown rethink his opinion of Dr Arnold, though not necessarily to persuade him to knuckle under. But Dr Arnold is more of a psychologist than that. He does have an ace up his sleeve for reining Tom in, and it goes by the name of George Arthur.
George Arthur is everything that Tom is not – at least on the surface. He is weak and sickly, while Tom is boisterous and physically robust. He is a ‘mummy’s boy’ and not ashamed of the fact. I suppose we might say nowadays that he was a sissy, He is also obviously a scholar rather than an athlete, and does not care what others think of him. He prays before he goes to bed and perseveres with it, while others throw slippers at him to get him to stop. He won’t conform and takes pride in being different. “It would be a dull old world if we all had to be the same, wouldn’t it Tom?” he tells Brown, who at first is not too pleased with being given job of looking after him, and tries to persuade him to be ‘more of a man’ and look after himself. “If a person hits you, hit him back.” He says. “I don’t believe in violence.” Arthur replies, to which Tom retorts, “Of course you believe in violence; you’re British.” I suspect Arthur is a bit of an embarrassment to Brown at first. Brown is a conformist; Arthur is not, and perhaps he also makes Tom a little guilty about being so. After all, Tom started out with the same kind of intentions, but Arthur has stuck with them, while he hasn’t. After a while, however, it is obvious that Tom starts to have more respect for Arthur’s idiosyncrasies and take his own assigned role as protector more seriously, even repeating Arthur’s dictum, “It would be a dull old world if we all had to be the same, wouldn’t it?” to his friend East, for whom Arthur is simply weird. In the book, Tom even becomes slightly jealous when Arthur begins to pay attention to someone else, but then we all know what boarding-schools are like, don’t we?
It is obvious that Arthur would become a sitting target for someone like Flashman sooner or later, not only because he was weak and vulnerable, but because of his growing friendship with Brown, who Flashman hated as an impudent cad because he stood up to him. And the occasion comes when Flashman gets hold of a letter from Arthur to his mother praising Tom as the one shard of sunshine in the darkness of his present existence. This leads to Arthur being dunked in the school-well, an act which precipitates the fight between Tom Brown and Flashman, which ends in Brown’s defeat but only because Flashman had cheated and used a knuckle-duster after the smaller, but fitter Brown had completely outboxed him. Up to that point, it seems that everything that happens in the film happens because it must. It represents a very good climax, though what happens after is perhaps not so compelling.
One important issue the film raises is that of class. Flashman clearly comes from an aristocratic background. His father is a rich benefactor of the school and that gives Flashman a bargaining counter in his dealings with the headmaster. Brown’s background, on the other hand, is that of the local squirarchy or small landed gentry, which means he would have been much more likely to mix with and also get involved in fights and wrestling matches with the neighbourhood farmhands and ‘country bumpkins’ in his own age-group – something brought out in the novel. When he goes off the rails it is in the direction of being an agitator spoiling for a fight against perceived injustices. When Flashman goes off the rails it is in defence of his own sense of class-entitlement against ‘uppity little cads’ like Brown. I suspect it was a fairly accurate portrayal of aspects of class-relations at the time Hughes was writing the novel.
This is the 1830s and class then took on a different profile to the one it shows now. But of course it has not been left completely behind, as the phenomenon of the Bullingdon Club, to which our Tory rulers once belonged, suggests. Who else but a class of spoilt brats, used to taking their own privileges for granted, would smash up restaurants for the sake of a jolly night out, leaving others to clear up the mess? Who else in government would not see the suffering they caused to people of ‘the lower classes’ through their policies of austerity, the number of disabled people who have been driven to suicide because they have suddenly been deemed fit to work and had their benefits withdrawn. Only such a callous class is capable of this, a class that has no contact with the human beings whose lives they destroy. The same goes of course, for all the people made homeless. The Flashmans of this world are alive and kicking still, though the Tom Browns may have become extinct.
The final question I want to ask is why we still allow it to persist. Perhaps the reason can be found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s book, The Ancien Regime And The French Revolution. “The reason why the English middle-class, far from being actively hostile to the aristocracy, inclined to fraternise with it was not so much that the aristocracy kept open house as that its barriers were ill-defined; not so much that entrance into it was easy, as that you never knew when you had got there. The result was that everyone who hovered on its outskirts nursed the agreeable illusion that he belonged to it and joined forces with it in the hope of acquiring prestige or some practical advantage under its aegis.” That is to say that it is a big imaginary club which still holds vast swathes of people in thrall to it by somehow persuading them that if they just voted Tory, they would belong to it. But what they get instead for their pains is roundly abused by the modern equivalents of Flashman.