So, more corporal punishment, but this time from the charming nostalgic point of view. Above is a screen-grab from a movie I watched last night, Tom Brown’s School Days, the 1940 film version of the Victorian novel by Thomas Hughes about the English public school, Rugby. Tom arrives as a “new boy,” and must learn the myriad customs of Rugby–the proper headwear, the terminology, the masters, and how to put up with all manner of strange little humiliations that today we’d call hazing. There’s lots of hitting of younger boys by older boys, and a tradition of “never telling tales” that’s as comprehensive as the code of omertà among Mafiosi.
We’re supposed to find all of this charming, and it is, sort of–Mr. Chips inhabited a world of this sort, and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is more or less a contemporary version of it. On the other hand, both Roald Dahl (in his memoir “Boy”) and George Orwell (in his essay, “Such, Such Were The Joys“) had found British public schools brutal and dehumanizing. Indeed, the masters of Orwell’s St. Cyprian’s are clearly a prototype of Big Brother in 1984. And in charting out this chamber of horrors, it would be remiss to leave the Smiths’ “Headmaster Ritual” out. It’s hard to know, from these accounts, whether the authorities are any less worse than the students.
Tom Brown idolizes the headmaster Thomas Arnold, who was keen to reform the school, and situates most of the violence among a few “bad apples.” Early on, Tom confronts a bully named Flashman, who has earlier commanded another boy to write out his Latin verses for him. Tom and his buddies compose the following lines, as we see on screen above:
Latin Verses G. Flashman
Hos ego versiculos scripci
sed non ego feci
Da mihi praeceptor verber(a)
Let me note, pedantically, that the scripci ought to be scripsi. In English, it reads,
I have written these verses
But I did not compose them
Give me beatings, teacher.
Flashman ends up turning in these lines, is called out to read them by the teacher, is laughed at by the class, beaten as requested, and thus all Tom’s troubles begin in earnest–including an all-out fist-fight–until Flashman is expelled. Though he does beat the boys as discipline, Arnold retains his reputation as an advocate against bullying. Yet the whole atmosphere of bodily suffering is quite the norm at Rugby, and it’s hard to imagine anybody feeling wistful for it.
Tom Brown’s School Days:
The Smiths, “Headmaster Ritual”: