wo weeks after Tom Brown arrives at Oxford, he writes a letter to a younger friend still at Rugby containing his "first impressions" of his college, the fictional St. Ambrose. Tom's letter, which also describes the layout of the college, makes clear that intellectually and spiritually St. Ambrose falls far short of Thomas Arnold's Rugby. "First and foremost, it's an awfully idle place; at any rate, for us freshmen. Fancy now. I am in twelve lectures a week of an hour each — Greek Testament, first book of Herodotus, second Æneid, and first book of Euclid! There's a treat! Two hours a day; all over by twelve, or one at latest; and no extra work at all, in the shape of copies of verses, themes, or other exercises" (15). Not only is the work required extremely light, the performance in class of other students reminds Tom of his next-to-last year in secomdary school.
I think sometimes I'm back in the lower fifth; for we don't get through more than we used to do there; and if you were to hear the men construe, it would make your hair stand on end. Where on earth can they have come from? unless they blunder on purpose, as I often think. Of course, I never look at a lecture before I go in, I know it all nearly by heart, so it would be sheer waste of time. I hope I shall take to reading something or other by myself; but you know I never was much of a hand at sapping, and, for the present, the light work suits me well enough, for there's plenty to see and learn about in this place.
The religious tone of the college also strikes Tim as much inferior to that at Rugby.
Chapel every morning at eight, and evening at seven. You must attend once a day, and twice on Sundays — at least, that's the rule of our college. . . . The attendance is regular enough, but I don't think the men care about it a bit in general. Several I can see bring in Euclids, and other lecture books, and the service is gone through at a great pace. I couldn't think at first why some of the men seemed so uncomfortable and stiff about the legs at morning service, but I find that they are the hunting set, and come in with pea-coats over their pinks, and trousers over their leather breeches and topboots; which accounts for it. There are a few others who seem very devout, and bow a good deal, and turn towards the altar at different parts of the service. These are of the Oxford High-church school, I believe; but I shall soon find out more about them. On the whole I feel less at home at present, I am sorry to say, in the chapel, than anywhere else. [15, 17]
Tom's first report, which accurately captures the state of Oxford before its later nineteenth-century reforms, matches Ruskin's experiences at Christ Church, his college [Ruskin's watercolor]. Hughes himself went to Oriel, which his narrator seems to contrast to St. Ambrose, so it is not clear if he depicts his own college or another, but one thing is clear: the slackness in education, religion, and even athletic accomplishments derives not only from the institutions limited approach to learning but also from its large numbers of wealthy gentleman commoners.
- Tom Describes St. Ambrose, Oxford
- Gentlemen Commoners
- Social and economic stratification in pre-Victorian Oxford — the example of Brasenose College
- Education in Georgian and Early-Victorian Oxford
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown at Oxford  . New York: John W. Lovell Company, n.d.
Last modified 3 October 2012