Tom Brown’s Schooldays, first published in 1857, is perhaps the most celebrated (though not the first) example of the school story. Thomas Hughes wrote it for his eight-year-old son and wanted it to be interesting and ‘written in a right spirit’, in contrast to earlier, more didactic school stories such as Harriet Martineau’s The Crofton Boys (1841). The book is set in the 1830s and Tom, a country squire’s son, is sent to Rugby School. Tom is initially anxious to fit in and good at sport, but also mischievous, and reckless. The book is famous for the accounts of the bully Flashman, who roasts Tom and his friend Harry East in front of a fire, and the pious George Arthur who gradually introduces the civilising influence of religion into Tom’s dormitory. Rugby’s famous headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold appears as ‘the Doctor’.
Although Hughes meant his hero to be representative of ‘everyman’ rather than being a self-portrait, there are clear parallels with his life, and his portrayal of the Rugby School, which he attended, is realistic. Hughes, a barrister and later a judge, wrote a sequel, but it did not approach the popularity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays which has never been out of print.