Although most modern commentators on the subject look with horror upon fagging — the practice of having younger boys at British public schools run errands and generally act as servants for their elders in the final year or two of school — Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Browns's School days, presents it in a favorable light, indeed as something that his young hero likes to do because it allows him to associate with the older boys. Writing from his own experience of Thomas Arnold's Rugby, Hughes describes
the principal duties of the fags in the house. From supper until nine o'clock three fags taken in order stood in the passages, and answered any prepostor who called "Fag," racing to the door, the last comer having to do the work. This consisted generally of going to the buttery for beer and bread and cheese (for the great men did not sup with the rest, but had each his own allowance in his study or the fifth-form room), cleaning candlesticks and putting in new candles, toasting cheese, bottling beer, and carrying messages about the house; and Tom, in the first blush of his hero-worship, felt it a high privilege to receive orders from and be the bearer of the supper of old Brooke. And besides this night-work, each prepostor had three or four fags specially allotted to him, of whom he was supposed to be the guide, philosopher, and friend, and who in return for these good offices had to clean out his study every morning by turns, directly after first lesson and before he returned from breakfast. And the pleasure of seeing the great men's studies, and looking at their pictures, and peeping into their books, made Tom a ready substitute for any boy who was too lazy to do his own work. And so he soon gained the character of a good-natured, willing fellow, who was ready to do a turn for any one.
These duties, as Hughes describes them, certainly seem light, and the use of the Carlylean term "hero-worship" makes clear that at its best the fagging system allowed younger boys to observe true leaders like Brooke close at hand. Furthermore, the fagging system provided a practical embodiment of the idea that if one were to become a leader, one first had to become a follower and obey orders from those of higher status, which at Rugby and other public schools was conferred by one's age and school year. Hughes seems to have faith that as long as someone like Thomas Arnold, whom the novel presents as an ideal headmaster, was in charge, the system would work as intended. Of course, there were few headmasters as brilliant and benevolent as Arnold, and even in his school, as Tom Brown's Schooldays shows, the system was easily corrupted. In fact, at several key points in narrative, Tom defends himself and a younger boy in his charge from tyrannical older ones. In one case Tom and his good friend East gang up on a much larger older boy who does not have the right to have a fag because he is not yet in the sixth form, the final year at school; two-against-one is here apparently fair fighting. In another Tom fights alone to protect a younger boy, who cannot defend himself. In both cases, Hughes clearly advocates schoolboy fighting as justifiable means of solving disputes and achieving justice. Whereas the bully in the earlier episode spreads lies about Tom and his friend, causing them difficulties as long as the bully remains at Rugby, Tom's opponent in the second schoolboy battle eventually becomes a friend.
Since the idea that dominates Tom Browns's School Days is that Thomas Arnold directly and indirectly led young, healthy, not particularly intellectual boys to become noble, uncomplaining, Christian leaders with notable moral courage, everything good and bad works toward the betterment of young Tom, who at the beginning of his school career was becoming a careless, lazy, irreligious boy willing to cheat when it made things easier for him and who came closer than he knew to being expelled from Rugby. The best one can say is that the fagging system certain worked well for Hughes's protagonist, who experienced it as benign, but one wonders about all those other young boys unable to defend themselves or others from the verbal, physical, and even sexual abuse described by others. Even Thackeray, who in the end made his public school an object of nostalgia, at first wrote about it with extreme distaste.
Part of the reason Hughes writes approvingly of the fagging system lies in his emphasis upon the direct and indirect benificent moral influence of Arnold, and part lies in the nature of his hero, Tom Brown, a physically courageous young man who comes from a long line of fighters. Another reason appears in his belief that enduring hardships, including injustice and false accusations, readies one for life after school. Yet another comes in the very nature of British public school education, which, according to Hughes's account, seems to have consisted of little more than reading and writing Latin and Greek texts. It is difficult to believe that the graduates of Arnold's Rugby could have passed examinations in the ninth year of any American, British, or European school system today; they seem to have no physical sciences, mathematics, nonclassical or other contemporary history, art, music, and so on. Modern observers might also find themselves shocked by the fact that, again according to Hughes, even the youngest boys drank large quantities of beer (a healthier drink than milk, which was a prime source of tuberculosis, though not understood to be such at the time).
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Electronic version from Project Gutenberg produced by Gil Jaysmith and David Widger.
Last modified 26 June 2006