Tom Brown's School Days: "Fever in the School"
I've just read a striking passage from Tom Brown's School Days in which Tom Brown visits his younger friend George Arthur soon after the latter has begun to revive from a fever that had killed another boy and had endangered his own life:
It was evening when the housekeeper summoned him to the sick-room. Arthur was lying on the sofa by the open window, through which the rays of the western sun stole gently, lighting up his white face and golden hair. Tom remembered a German picture of an angel which he knew; often had he thought how transparent and golden and spirit-like it was; and he shuddered, to think how like it Arthur looked, and felt a shock as if his blood had all stopped short, as he realized how near the other world his friend must have been to look like that. Never till that moment had he felt how his little chum had twined himself round his heart-strings, and as he stole gently across the room and knelt down, and put his arm round Arthur's head on the pillow, felt ashamed and half-angry at his own red and brown face, and the bounding sense of health and power which filled every fibre of his body, and made every movement of mere living a joy to him. He needn't have troubled himself: it was this very strength and power so different from his own which drew Arthur so to him.In reading this passage, I found myself wondering, "Have we lost our innocence or gained an insight?"
Arthur laid his thin, white hand, on which the blue veins stood out so plainly, on Tom's great brown fist, and smiled at him; and then looked out of the window again, as if he couldn't bear to lose a moment of the sunset, into the tops of the great feathery elms, round which the rooks were circling and clanging, returning in flocks from their evening's foraging parties. The elms rustled, the sparrows in the ivy just outside the window chirped and fluttered about, quarrelling, and making it up again; the rooks, young and old, talked in chorus, and the merry shouts of the boys and the sweet click of the cricket-bats came up cheerily from below. (Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's School Days, Chapter 6, Gutenberg Project)
A hermeneutic of suspicion could take a possible reading of these two paragraphs rather far in an oblique direction, but would such a reading be rightminded? Or would it be rather like reading the word "fag" in the novel not in its original meaning of "a student at a British public school who is required to perform menial tasks for a student in a higher class," but in a more modern, novel sense? Misreading the past is easy to do because of cultural distance and the prejudices of our time.
In the Ozarks of my youth, the old folks still spoke of being "all fagged out." They meant by this that they were exhausted from overexertion. I wonder if anyone uses that expression these days. In the Ozarks of the early 19th century, men who were close friends might share a bed when visiting one another, but I doubt that Ozark men would do that these days. Old customs, like old expressions, drop away, even within the space of a generation or two, and we look back mystified by the things that our ancestors did and said.
The significance of masculinity and male friendship for Tom Brown's School Days is explored in a couple of pages from Margaret Markwick's New Men in Trollope's Novels: Rewriting the Victorian Male (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007), for those who might be interested. More could undoubtedly be said -- and no doubt has been said -- but I'm not the expert in this area and so leave all that could be said to be said by others.
Meanwhile, here's the great Peggy Lee singing "Fever."