Tom Brown's school daze

It's a measure of the enormous popularity of "Tom Brown's Schooldays," first published in 1857, that its author, Thomas Hughes, had collected no fewer than 136 editions of the book by the end of his career.

In 1896, an edition was published that brought the book added popularity because of its illustrations. These were the work of an up-and-coming young illustrator called Edmund J. Sullivan. They pleasantly pepper the book and rather unemphatically see the events, described in a somewhat didactic way in the text, from the boy's point of view. In their quiet seriousness, they seem remarkably true to the spirit of the book, while sensitively giving extra pictorial conviction to the words.

They also, like all the best illustrations, make the reader believe "Yes, of course, that is exactly what it must have been like."

Sullivan went on to establish his reputation as a master of black-and-white linear illustration. He never saw illustration as a lesser art form than any other. According to Gordon Ray, onetime director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, Sullivan approached book illustration with great thoroughness and panache. The final ink drawings were based on "a series of preliminary sketches" made "in a burst of energy ... a hundred or more in a week or two."

An intriguing aspect of the "Tom Brown" illustration shown here is that it depicts a moment in the narrative that immediately precedes one of sudden, surprising violence. Illustrations by Sullivan in subsequent books show he was quite capable of conveying extreme happenings.

But to an ill-prepared schoolboy, being ordered to read a passage in Latin and translate it in front of notably recalcitrant peers mightily relieved that they had not been chosen, is more of a nightmare than having his ears boxed by the headmaster because his translation was wrong!

The first three words of the Virgil he read were "Triste lupus stabulis ..." He construed them as "The sorrowful wolf ..." Few people today would have any idea why this mistranslation caused the teacher to explode with ire. But in the mid-19th century, there was evidently no need to explain. The proper translation should have been, "The wolf is cruel to the sheep." Ouch.

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