Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tom Brown's School Days: "Fever in the School"

Tom Brown's School Days
Thomas Hughes
(Image from Google Books)

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.

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)
In reading this passage, I found myself wondering, "Have we lost our innocence or gained an insight?"

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."

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At 7:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A tempting passage.
Oh yes, "fag" could bring all kinds of snickeing into the classroom in the past.
I remember being part of a class (in school days) getting excited at finding the word "intercourse" in Jane Austen. Sadly, Mr D had lots of intercourse in the novel, but no sex-- unfair trading by the venerable, not venereal, JA!
I shall think about this passage.

At 7:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 7:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting, the manner in which Hughes etherializes the scene.

The paragraphs that follow have George Arthur revealing a beatific vision of universal salvation . . . or something like that. An interesting twist on the Medieval dream vision of the Pearl Poet or the Early Modern dream vision of John Bunyan. All three have a river that divides this side from the other, but I suppose the river imagery is rather pervasive anyway.

Anyway, I'll be interested in your thoughts on the passage that I've quoted. I know that you've written quite a bit at your own blog on such a topic.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:27 AM, Blogger John B said...

So, you're saying it's exactly the sort of innocent masculine camaraderie shown in the Melville novel, BILLY BUDD?

At 8:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've not read Billy Budd since I was 20, so I don't recall enough to say.

But I'm pointedly NOT concluding what sort of "masculine camaraderie" is going on in Tom Brown's School Days, for I really do not know.

Is the camaraderie in Billy Budd innocent?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:06 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

That is why literature should be taught in primary school and students should not be given just book report assignments. That is the only way children can get a sense of the culture of the past. Hopefully they would have a knowledgeable teacher.

BTW, I hadn't remember the use of "fagged out" until I read this post.

It sometimes bothers me, how words have changed in my lifetime. I sometime have had to give explanations of my use of the English language in the blogosphere or argue why I need to use emoticons to express sarcasm or irony.

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I'd also forgotten about "fagged out," and I found myself delighted to have recalled it through reflecting on this passage. Another delightful expression -- though for different reasons -- is "out of pocket," which you must also be familiar with.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've also recalled an old class where I heard the word "fag" used to mean, "a bundle of sticks." Apparently meant to be used as kindling.

I also recall (from my youth) an expression I NEVER hear anymore, "We had a gay old time."


At 2:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, things have changed since The Flintstones.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:24 PM, Blogger John B said...

The first paragraph of BILLY BUDD is enough to see pretty suggestive content.

In all seriousness, I think the passage could be read as having an erotic content. Is there a similar characterization of their relationship elsewhere in the novel?

I think Eve Sedgwick covered similar ambiguous masculine relationships in Victorian fiction in BETWEEN MEN (I'm currently in her THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE CLOSET).

At 5:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Melville's greatest work, Moby Dick, has some intriguing passages, too.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that two of Thomas Hughes' other works are "The Ashen Faggot," a story for Christmas in which the title does refer to a bundle of sticks -- nothing more, and his book "The Manliness of Christ." -- GZ, Rugby, TN

At 3:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, that word "faggot" is another term that doesn't travel well, culturally or temporally.

Interesting that Hughes wrote on Christ's 'manliness'. Apparantly, a proper masculinity was something that he felt needed to be well clarified and strongly grounded.

I suppose that this puts in a new light the old Medieval query of "Why God Became Man."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:36 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

If you look at Salvadore Dali's painting of the Last Supper, you might wonder.

I still use the term out of pocket.

At 4:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I used the expression just yesterday . . . but only because I'd mentioned it to you and wanted to try it out on a man from Georgia at church.

Unfortunately, he didn't catch what I'd said, so I don't know if it's current there.

By the way, I'll have to take a look at Dali's painting on Christ's 'manliness'.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can someone please refresh my memory? In which Shakespeare play did a character utter, "Give him head," meaning "Let him speak"? We read that play during my freshmen year and never tired of snickering every time that line got read.

I still can't get used to wearing flip-flops instead of thongs.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Taming of the Shrew, Act I, Scene 2

Lucentio: "Sir, give him head; I know he'll prove a jade."

Jeffery Hodges

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