The Tom Brown Question by P. G. Wodehouse
The man in the corner had been trying to worry me into a conversation
for some time. He had asked me if I objected to having the window open.
He had said something rather bitter about the War Office, and had hoped
I did not object to smoking. Then, finding that I stuck to my book
through everything, he made a fresh attack.
'I see you are reading Tom Brown's Schooldays,' he said.
This was a plain and uninteresting statement of fact, and appeared to
me to require no answer. I read on.
'Fine book, sir.'
'I suppose you have heard of the Tom Brown Question?'
I shut my book wearily, and said I had not.
'It is similar to the Homeric Question. You have heard of that, I
I knew that there was a discussion about the identity of the author of
the Iliad. When at school I had been made to take down notes on the
subject until I had grown to loathe the very name of Homer.
'You see,' went on my companion, 'the difficulty about Tom Brown's
Schooldays is this. It is obvious that part one and part two were
written by different people. You admit that, I suppose?'
'I always thought Mr Hughes wrote the whole book.'
'Dear me, not really? Why, I thought everyone knew that he only wrote
the first half. The question is, who wrote the second. I know, but I
don't suppose ten other people do. No, sir.'
'What makes you think he didn't write the second part?'
'My dear sir, just read it. Read part one carefully, and then read part
two. Why, you can see in a minute.'
I said I had read the book three times, but had never noticed anything
peculiar about it, except that the second half was not nearly so
interesting as the first.
'Well, just tell me this. Do you think the same man created East and
Arthur? Now then.'
I admitted that it was difficult to understand such a thing.
'There was a time, of course,' continued my friend, 'when everybody
thought as you do. The book was published under Hughes's name, and it
was not until Professor Burkett-Smith wrote his celebrated monograph on
the subject that anybody suspected a dual, or rather a composite,
authorship. Burkett-Smith, if you remember, based his arguments on two
very significant points. The first of these was a comparison between
the football match in the first part and the cricket match in the
second. After commenting upon the truth of the former description, he
went on to criticize the latter. Do you remember that match? You do?
Very well. You recall how Tom wins the toss on a plumb wicket?'
'Then with the usual liberality of young hands (I quote from the book)
he put the M.C.C. in first. Now, my dear sir, I ask you, would a school
captain do that? I am young, says one of Gilbert's characters, the
Grand Duke, I think, but, he adds, I am not so young as that. Tom may
have been young, but would he, could he have been young enough
to put his opponents in on a true wicket, when he had won the toss?
Would the Tom Brown of part one have done such a thing?'
'Never,' I shouted, with enthusiasm.
'But that's nothing to what he does afterwards. He permits, he actually
sits there and permits, comic songs and speeches to be made during the
luncheon interval. Comic Songs! Do you hear me, sir? COMIC SONGS!! And
this when he wanted every minute of time he could get to save the
match. Would the Tom Brown of part one have done such a thing?'
'Never, never.' I positively shrieked the words this time.
'Burkett-Smith put that point very well. His second argument is founded
on a single remark of Tom's, or rather—'
'Or rather,' I interrupted, fiercely,' or rather of the wretched
'Contemptible,' said my friend.
'Despicable, scoundrelly, impostor who masquerades as Tom in the second
half of the book.'
'Exactly,' said he. 'Thank you very much. I have often thought the same
myself. The remark to which I refer is that which he makes to the
master while he is looking on at the M.C.C. match. In passing, sir,
might I ask you whether the Tom Brown of part one would have been on
speaking terms with such a master?'
I shook my head violently. I was too exhausted to speak.
'You remember the remark? The master commented on the fact that Arthur
is a member of the first eleven. I forget Tom's exact words, but the
substance of them is this, that, though on his merits Arthur was not
worth his place, he thought it would do him such a lot of good being in
the team. Do I make myself plain, sir? He—thought—it—would—do—
There was a pause. We sat looking at one another, forming silently with
our lips the words that still echoed through the carriage.
'Burkett-Smith,' continued my companion, 'makes a great deal of that
remark. His peroration is a very fine piece of composition. "Whether
(concludes he) the captain of a school cricket team who could own
spontaneously to having been guilty of so horrible, so terrible an act
of favouritismical jobbery, who could sit unmoved and see his team
being beaten in the most important match of the season (and, indeed,
for all that the author tells us it may have been the only match of the
season), for no other reason than that he thought a first eleven cap
would prove a valuable tonic to an unspeakable personal friend of his,
whether, I say, the Tom Brown who acted thus could have been the Tom
Brown who headed the revolt of the fags in part one, is a question
which, to the present writer, offers no difficulties. I await with
confidence the verdict of a free, enlightened, and conscientious public
of my fellow-countrymen." Fine piece of writing, that, sir?'
'Very,' I said.
'That pamphlet, of course, caused a considerable stir. Opposing parties
began to be formed, some maintaining that Burkett-Smith was entirely
right, others that he was entirely wrong, while the rest said he might
have been more wrong if he had not been so right, but that if he had
not been so mistaken he would probably have been a great deal more
correct. The great argument put forward by the supporters of what I may
call the "One Author" view, was, that the fight in part two could not
have been written by anyone except the author of the fight with
Flashman in the school-house hall. And this is the point which has led
to all the discussion. Eliminate the Slogger Williams episode, and the
whole of the second part stands out clearly as the work of another
hand. But there is one thing that seems to have escaped the notice of
'Yes?' I said.
He leant forward impressively, and whispered. 'Only the actual fight is
the work of the genuine author. The interference of Arthur has been
'By Jove!' I said. 'Not really?'
'Yes. Fact, I assure you. Why, think for a minute. Could a man capable
of describing a fight as that fight is described, also be capable of
stopping it just as the man the reader has backed all through is
winning? It would be brutal. Positively brutal, sir!'
'Then, how do you explain it?'
'A year ago I could not have told you. Now I can. For five years I have
been unravelling the mystery by the aid of that one clue. Listen. When
Mr Hughes had finished part one, he threw down his pen and started to
Wales for a holiday. He had been there a week or more, when one day, as
he was reclining on the peak of a mountain looking down a deep
precipice, he was aware of a body of men approaching him. They were
dressed soberly in garments of an inky black. Each had side whiskers,
and each wore spectacles. "Mr Hughes, I believe?" said the leader, as
they came up to him.
'"Your servant, sir," said he.
'"We have come to speak to you on an important matter, Mr Hughes. We
are the committee of the Secret Society For Putting Wholesome
Literature Within The Reach Of Every Boy, And Seeing That He Gets It.
I, sir, am the president of the S.S.F.P.W.L.W.T.R.O.E.B.A.S.T.H.G.I."
'"Really, sir, I—er—don't think I have the pleasure," began Mr
'"You shall have the pleasure, sir. We have come to speak to you about
your book. Our representative has read Part I, and reports unfavourably
upon it. It contains no moral. There are scenes of violence, and your
hero is far from perfect."
'"I think you mistake my object," said Mr Hughes; "Tom is a boy, not a
patent medicine. In other words, he is not supposed to be perfect."
'"Well, I am not here to bandy words. The second part of your book
must be written to suit the rules of our Society. Do you agree, or
shall we throw you over that precipice?"
'"Never. I mean, I don't agree."
'"Then we must write it for you. Remember, sir, that you will be
constantly watched, and if you attempt to write that second part
yourself—"' (he paused dramatically). 'So the second part was written
by the committee of the Society. So now you know.'
'But,' said I, 'how do you account for the fight with Slogger
'The president relented slightly towards the end, and consented to Mr
Hughes inserting a chapter of his own, on condition that the Society
should finish it. And the Society did. See?'
'Ticket, please, sir.'
I looked up. The guard was standing at the open door. My companion had
'Guard,' said I, as I handed him my ticket, 'where's the gentleman who
travelled up with me?'
'Gentleman, sir? I haven't seen nobody.'
'Not a man in tweeds with red hair? I mean, in tweeds and owning red
'No, sir. You've been alone in the carriage all the way up. Must have
dreamed it, sir.'
Possibly I did.