I want to be A 1 at cricket and football, and all the other games, and to make my hands keep my head against any other fellow, lout or gentleman. I want to get into the sixth before I leave, and to please the Doctor; and I want to take away just as much Latin and Greek as will take me through Oxford respectably. […] I want to leave behind me the name of a fellow who never bullied a little boy, or turned his back on a big one.
The masterpiece. The cultural icon. The school story.
Tom Brown’s Schooldays is several things all at once. It is an exciting school story; it is a paean of praise to Benedict Arnold; it is a moral fable; it is a story about faith. Despite the title, Tom doesn’t reach Rugby until chapter five; most of the first three chapters is taken up with discussion of his childhood in the Vale of the White Horse, where he learns wrestling and goes to village fairs, and where Hughes begins the moralising which he does constantly and yet, in general, tastefully – on class (“Class amusements, be they for dukes or ploughboys, always become nuisances and curses to a country”), on generosity (“Tom resolves in his heart to give Willum the remainder of his two shillings after the back-swording” [note that the editors felt no need to replace two shillings with ten pence]), on sport (without “something to try the muscles of men’s bodies and the endurance of their hearts,” “your great Mechanics’ Institutes end in intellectual priggism, and your Christian Young Men’s Societies in religious Pharisaism”).
The Browns, Hughes tells us, are an “eminently quixotic” family, hard-headed and stubborn to a fault. But it is this spirit which makes them morally and physically courageous. This is why Tom stands up to Flashman; this is why he institutes a strike against fagging for fifth-form bullies; this is why he fights “Slogger” Williams; this is why he gets down on his knees to pray in a dormitory full of teenaged boys – even the most areligious can admit the courage in this last, and it is impossible to escape Christianity in this book.
The story of Tom is divided into two parts. The first could just as easily be called “The Adventures of Tom Brown (and Scud East) at Rugby”. In it, he plays football and pranks with equal relish; he navigates the trials and tribulations of a junior boy – working in the mistakes to cribs, running from the fifth form, persecuting masters, fishing in local rivers, breaking out at night and stealing rooks’ eggs, hero-worshipping Old Brooke and Young Brooke. That is his life; an Elysium of animal spirits and boyish camaraderie, with simple villains and simple codes. The official rules aren’t morally binding in any sense; if you’re caught breaking them by those in authority, you take your punishment without a “snivel […] or any humbug of that kind,” but you don’t feel guilty. Guilt is for bullies and cowards, not independent-spirited boys.
The second is in many ways different, but in many not. The important watershed change is the introduction of Arthur. Tom is made responsible for the pale and delicate Arthur, a responsibility that, step by step, develops him from a wayward young boy into a respected and upstanding senior figure of the school. The most illuminating, or at least important, conversation in the entire book comes when Tom, East and Arthur are discussing the Bible, but the seeds of it were sown right back at the start, when Hughes discusses the character of the Browns as a clan.
“How often have I told you, Tom, [said East] that you must drive a nail where it’ll go?”
“And how often have I told you,” rejoined Tom, “that it’ll always go where you want, if you only stick to it and hit hard enough.”
Arthur, a clergyman’s son, reminds Tom of his Christianity, but Tom never becomes another Arthur. Arthur is more mild than Tom could ever be; his faith is cheek-turning, whereas Tom’s is active, impassioned, wrong-righting. And Tom makes more of Arthur than Arthur could ever have made of himself; he takes him out birds-nesting and playing cricket. Arthur is a scholar at heart, so sensitive that he actually cries when construing Homer in front of the class; but when he falls ill, it is the robust outdoor hobbies that Tom has introduced him to that, in having strengthened his constitution, keep him alive.
As well as Tom and East and Arthur, we’re given role models in the form of the brothers Brooke. Old and Young, they dominate School-House in their turn – adored by the younger boys, respected by their peers, feared by the bullies. They are precursors, in many ways, of what Tom will become; only each iteration is refinement of the one before. Old Brooke is an old-school figure, decent to the core and able to recognise the good qualities of the Doctor, but still an arch-traditionalist. Young Brooke, with more years of overlap, is “rather a favourite with the Doctor for his openness and plainness of speech.” Tom is devoted to the man; and, in Hughes’s eye, is therefore the apotheosis of the Rugbean (and yet very ordinary, not one of Arnold’s chosen favourites).
Just a word, finally, on faith. Hughes’s Christianity is of a type often called muscular; it emphasises the virtues of hard work, of mens sana in corpore sano, of courage. It encourages us to see ourselves as soldiers or as workmen, engaged in a great project and battle – not against the unfaithful, in proselytising or Crusades, but against misery and injustice, and against our own doubts and fears and rationalisations. When Tom decides to start praying at his bedside, the sniggers quickly die, because “Tom could probably have thrashed any boy in the room except the praeposter [prefect]; at any rate, every boy knew he would try upon very slight provocation, and didn’t choose to run the risk of a hard fight because Tom Brown had taken a fancy to say his prayers.” It’s not enough simply to sit and pray and hope, to go to church on Sundays and have the vicar over for tea. “From the cradle to the grave, fighting, rightly understood, is the business, the real, highest, honestest business of every son of man. Every one who is worth his salt has his enemies, who must be beaten.” You don’t have to be a Christian to admire the code; you don’t even have to be a Christian to live by it – to be fearless, to take the weaker part, to guard against your own weaknesses and to win as your reward “the fear and hatred of every one who was false or unjust.” Hughes’s faith, and indeed the faith of all his characters, should move and inspire you, Christian or not.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel is, shall we say, a peculiar book, about sex (ish), art (sort of) and chess (sometimes). Plus some murder. There’s a little bit of bollocks-philosophy in places, but by and large it’s a pretty good read – it certainly keeps you engaged. Solving the riddle encoded in a fifteenth-century painting, and solving a modern murder, become deeply entwined; and that’s all the plot I’ll give away.
Overall, How Much the Heart Can Hold is a charming collection of stories about love in all its guises – unrequited, enduring, familial and so on. Each of the seven “flashes of love” tackles an individual aspect of a far-from-unitary concept; apart from the first, which is about “la douleur exquise” (the feeling of love being unrequited), all the types are named in Greek. Seven authors and seven concepts gives seven very different stories – the brutal “Before It Disappears”; the oddly delightful “One More Thing Coming Undone (“all you have to show is this vague memory that, a long time ago, you were part of something really, really good”); “White Wine”, about self-love as self-respect, as knowing and being proud of who you are; “Magdala, Who Slips Sometimes”, with that almost hypnotic, almost breathless style.
The best story in the collection is “Codas”, about storge, or affectionate, familial love. Obsession or self-love or eroticism are made compelling by their various stories, but “Codas” gives us a love that is our birthright – the first love, the mundane one, the one that manifests itself in every quotidian reality and infiltrates our lives. It’s the loyal love, unexplained, inexplicable, the love of parent for child and child for parent. It’s a proud love, uncompromising. It makes us do our best for each other when we’re at our worst. And Carys Bray captures it perfectly.
The worst story in the collection is “The Human World”, about agape, love for humanity, “unconditional and unspecific”. Taking God as its narrator, it reads like somebody looked up half a dozen passages of theodicy, stripped out all the good or intelligent points, and then rewrote them into the first person. It’s rubbish. Rubbish. Why is it rubbish? I don’t know. I doubt that the author sat down and thought, “I’m going to write a rubbish story now.” But it is.
Stories with God as narrator or main character are in general terrible, and this version of God is particularly shit. The besetting fault of stories which go down this path is the weirdly badly-justified modernities (whose real purpose is to make a story with no other merits seem “relevant”), and this falls for them like a ton of bricks. Desperation to avoid the bearded-white-man-on-cloud conception of God, and to avoid offending anybody by actually taking a theological stance (a feeble cop-out, especially when mangled) means we end up with some New-Age wankery non-denominational bullshit of a deity.
OK. Enough general vitriol. First substantive point: how do you manage to make such important issues so – well, so fucking boring and unemotive? Seriously. Female genital mutilation, sex slavery (and things that are in all but name), other forms of slavery, the abuse and murder of homosexuals, despotism, civil war – I have never in all my days been less moved by an account of these. It’s impossible for such subject matter to be actually and completely unmoving, at least for anyone who’s ever heard of the issues, but their treatment actively hinders this. I’ve been more affected by academic articles than this supposed polemic.
Second substantive point: the use of language is just atrocious. The grammar is terrible, and far from the (presumably) desired effect of making the litany of wrongs seem unstinting and even more overwhelming, it just makes the narrator sound even more like an aggravating child. “Damn those paedophiles” is a ridiculous line, a terrible line, reminiscent more of Captain Darling’s “Damn this Château Lafite” than any serious condemnation of child abuse.
I’ll stop now. Diatribes aren’t really my style. But I find it upsetting that when every other story managed to ground the love it described in particulars, this final, capstone effort couldn’t manage to be anything more than this – an out-of-inspiration attempt to jazz up God. Unconditional love for humanity could have been demonstrated by an Amnesty International volunteer, a member of Médecins San Frontièrs, an aid worker. The few passages we get in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (q.v.) about Arthur’s father are a better exploration of the ideal. An ordinary person rescuing a fellow human-being in peril would have been a much better plot than any of these.
I really don’t want to discourage anyone from reading this collection. The remaining stories are, I think, really excellent, and the fact that I devoted so much time to (pretty vituperative, looking back at it) criticism of the final instalment shouldn’t reflect on the earlier ones at all, except insofar as it indicates I had high expectations.
Tom Brown’s Schooldays
Author Thomas Hughes
Best character Young Brooke, with his legs “of cast-iron” and his uprightness and his loyalty to his own house.
The Flanders Panel
Author Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Best character Muñoz.
How Much the Heart Can Hold
Author Emma Herdman (ed.)
Best character Max, from “Codas”.