Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man's World
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Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man's World

Joseph Bristow

  1. 234 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man's World

Joseph Bristow

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About This Book

Originally published in 1991. Focusing on 'boys' own' literature, this book examines the reasons why such a distinct type of combative masculinity developed during the heyday of the British Empire. This book reveals the motives that produced this obsessive focus on boyhood. In Victorian Britain many kinds of writing, from the popular juvenile weeklies to parliamentary reports, celebrated boys of all classes as the heroes of their day. Fighting fit, morally upright, and proudly patriotic - these adventurous young men were set forth on imperial missions, civilizing a savage world. Such noble heroes included the strapping lads who brought an end to cannibalism on Ballantyne's "Coral Island" who came into their own in the highly respectable "Boys' Own Paper", and who eventually grew up into the men of Haggard's romances, advancing into the Dark Continent. The author here demonstrates why these young heroes have enjoyed a lasting appeal to readers of children's classics by Stevenson, Kipling and Henty, among many others. He shows why the political intent of many of these stories has been obscured by traditional literary criticism, a form of criticism itself moulded by ideals of empire and 'Englishness'. Throughout, imperial boyhood is related to wide-ranging debates about culture, literacy, realism and romance. This is a book of interest to students of literature, social history and education.

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Reading for the Empire
Boys, Class, and Culture
PLENTY of people will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses. The ordinary popular literature is an example of this way of working on the masses. Plenty of people will try to indoctrinate the masses with the set of ideas and judgements constituting the creed of their own profession or party. Our religious and political organizations give an example of this way of working on the masses. I condemn neither; but culture works differently. It does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own, with ready-made judgements and watchwords. It seeks to do away with the classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, where they may use ideas, as it uses them itself, freely – nourished and not bound by them.
(Matthew Arnold, 1869, Culture and Anarchy)1
The Working Classes of this country are very generally, and I venture to think very justly, accredited with the possession of ‘sound common sense’, ‘shrewd intelligence’, and other the like mental characteristics of a more or less intuitive order. But not even their best friends or warmest admirers can say of them that they are a cultured class.
(Thomas Wright, ‘On a Possible Popular Culture’)2
Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society. The condition of culture among the various societies of mankind, in so far as it is capable of being investigated on general principles, is a subject apt for the study of laws of human thought and action.
(Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture)3
Culture: this word, for at least the last 100 years, has been an exceptionally loaded and hotly debated one. In Victorian Britain, the word predominantly came to signify a specific set of values that every civilized individual should possess. As this chapter indicates, debates about culture impinged on attitudes to literacy, especially in relation to the reading matter of working-class children. It was the work of Matthew Arnold and his more conservative heirs that defined the concept of culture as an ennobling form of education. Yet it is important to remember that Arnold himself was strongly criticized in his own time for confining culture to a limited definition of spiritual and moral improvement, which only a select few possessed, and which the middle classes had to emulate. For example, Frederic Harrison, the well-known Victorian positivist, contended Arnold’s high-minded notion of culture in the late 1860s. In ‘Culture: A Dialogue’, Harrison has a sceptical German philosopher ask his English proponent of culture how ‘sweetness is to be attained’. The Englishman (the barely disguised Arnold) says: ‘I suppose it comes’.4 Harrison amusingly shows how Arnoldian ‘culture’ has no rational basis.
There were other Victorian ways of thinking about the meaning and value of culture. As the quotation from Tylor’s founding study of comparative anthropology shows, the concept of culture was also seen to represent ideas of community and custom, in all echelons of society. It is these alternatives or counter-definitions of culture that the work of the post-war critic, Raymond Williams, sought to reclaim, and, in many respects, it is Williams’s writings – from Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1958) onwards – that have opened up the space in which a book, like this one, has been able to emerge.
Williams’s sustained interest in the competing definitions of culture is, as he says, situated at the convergence between ‘(i) the anthropological and sociological senses of culture as a distinct “whole way of life” … and (ii) the more specialized if also more common sense of culture of “artistic and intellectual activities”‘.5 As Williams observes, the notion that culture is something that has to be looked up to, that harmonizes the human spirit, and that can only be ascribed to, as well as acquired from, the so-called ‘fine arts’ (those recognizably nineteenth-century categories of ‘classical’ music and ‘English literature’) has considerable influence to this day. It is a word that still generates an air of elitism, pitching itself above the everyday and the ordinary. For many working-class people, what is often understood as culture may not appear to belong to them (even though it is clear to anyone involved in the study of this concept that there are identifiable working-class cultures in Williams’s first, and primary, sense). Instead, the idea of culture for those who dissociate themselves from the term brings to mind those refined artistic practices that are supposedly the province of the rich. It has taken many years (from the late 1950s onwards) to legitimate the analysis of ‘popular culture’ – as opposed to the unpopular ‘fine arts’ – within academic institutions. However, as the epigraph by Thomas Wright indicates, there was a debate about ‘popular culture’ being conducted in the late Victorian period.
These competing definitions of culture – ‘fine arts’ versus a ‘whole way of life’ – are particularly relevant to this study since the need for culture in education, notably in debates about literacy, was frequently discussed in the numerous Victorian periodicals read by the educated classes. This chapter examines how advances in literacy among young working-class people (particularly boys), and the popularity of ‘penny dreadfuls’ among them, flew in the face of bourgeois (cultured) literary standards. The aim is to provide a detailed account of how and why debates about reading became focused upon the uses and abuses of leisure time, especially among those who were gaining the supposed benefits of literacy. The second section of this discussion investigates the emergence of a new kind of boys’ paper that had few pretensions to literary culture but achieved a popular form of improving respectability among both working- and middle-class readers, and which accommodated excesses of violence and imperialist militarism at an acceptable level.
Extraordinary value was placed on the morally improving nature of culture in the nineteenth century. For Arnold and his followers, notably Walter Pater, culture was the finest condition any person could attain. This highly selective version of culture aimed, in part, to supersede the supposed lowering and narrowing of moral and spiritual standards among the Christian churches. Arnold particularly objected to middle-class dissenters, whose church services he felt were mechanical and uninspiring. (This was a longstanding prejudice among authoritarian liberals hailing from the establishment.) Described in metaphors of ‘sweetness and light’, Arnoldian culture presented itself as an alternative to the dry religious fanaticism of the baptists, methodists, and other sects which were an alternative to the Church of England. Culture was, supposedly, the supreme form of aesthetic perfection. It brought together the finest things ever achieved by the finest minds; its harmonizing properties guaranteed restraint; and it could be made available to more and more people through a developing refinement of the senses. All these points are raised in Arnold’s best-known work, Culture and Anarchy, whose title opposes its two terms. The book is a putatively liberal, and thereby tolerant, tract that, by virtue of the polemical twists and turns of its idealism, succumbs to the faults of dogmatic and sectarian thinking it so eagerly denounces. With his double assault on middle-class small-mindedness and working-class unruliness, Arnold promulgates culture as the social heal to the divisive interests of a world where ‘doing as one likes’ lamentably has full rein.
An example from Culture and Anarchy will serve to indicate the general direction of Arnold’s influential thesis, a thesis whose conservative elements would be appropriated by Henry Newbolt in the drafting of The Teaching of English in England (1921), which set a culture-oriented agenda for literary education in Britain until at least the 1970s. In the passage that follows, Arnold is surveying the contemporary scene of religion and politics. The period is the 1860s. Bearing in mind that history is necessarily progressive (history is a process of improvement: a central tenet of liberal ideology), Arnold looks forward to a future when his particular model of culture has absorbed what is best from the current state of affairs, and what is worst has been duly sacrificed to the past:
Now, culture admits the necessity of the movement towards fortune-making and exaggerated industrialism, readily allows that the future may derive benefit from it; but insists, at the same time, that the passing generations of industrialists – forming, for the most part, the stout main body of Philistinism [those driven towards wealth and nothing else], – are sacrificed to it. In the same way, the result of all the games and sports which occupy the passing generation of boys and young men may be the establishment of a better and sounder physical type for the future to work with. Culture does not set itself against the games and sports; it congratulates the future, and hopes it will make a good use of its improved physical basis; but it points out that our passing generation of boys and young is, meantime, sacrificed. Puritanism was perhaps necessary to develop the moral fibre of the English race, Nonconformity to break the yoke of ecclesiastical domination over men’s minds and to prepare the way for freedom of thought in the distant future; still, culture points out that the harmonious perfection of generations of Puritans and Nonconformists has been, in consequence, sacrificed. Freedom of speech may be necessary for the society of the future, but the young lions of the Daily Telegraph in the meanwhile are sacrificed.6
Since culture avoids excess (bad behaviour, like rioting), Arnold’s judgements about what should and should not become part of the future are made to look entirely reasonable. Culture, therefore, is destined to appeal to everybody’s implicitly flexible and tolerant instincts. It is a state of mind that all people could achieve if only they would stop trying to justify their own beliefs and values. For Arnold, the world is riven by opinionated and inferior loudmouths endlessly jostling for positions of power. Culture is designed to bring an end to these vulgar and divisive attitudes. It is calm, not dynamic; abstract, not tangible; spiritual, not physical; and, above all, natural, not artificial. Outside history, removed from politics, and yet anticipating a time when both shaping forces have been perfected, culture presents itself as non-ideological. It could, then, be thought of as a higher form of commonsense or the very best sort of intuition.
But how might culture of this kind be communicated to Arnold’s disharmonious band of Philistines, public-school athletes, Nonconformists, and bigoted Daily Telegraph readers? By instinct or education or both? Chris Baldick notes the practical difficulties facing Arnold in this respect:
The inward condition of culture, and the inner restraint encouraged by it, are more valuable to Arnold than a new institution which would in all likelihood be overrun by Philistines. It is more to his habit to foster a habit of intellectual conscience and deference by pointing to England’s cultural shortcomings and to the need for a centre, than to create a real centre which might fall short of the ideal. To paraphrase Voltaire’s famous remark about God, it could be said of Arnold’s intellectual centre that its most important attribute was not its actual existence but an acceptance of the need to invent it.7
Arnold’s evasiveness about the means to bring about the ends of culture adopts an even more surprising aspect when his day-to-day employment is taken into account. He was one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools. Yet whenever Arnold gestured towards some kind of academy for the promotion of sweetness and light, he frequently turned to Oxford, not the hundreds of schools he visited as a matter of course. Arnold’s admiration for this high seat of learning needs to be treated with some caution since, as Baldick observes, ‘in private letters and some of his lesser-known educational reports Arnold admitted that Oxford was little more than a glorified finishing school for the Barbarians, with a stagnant intellectual life.’8 But in Culture and Anarchy, as in his well-known poem ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’ (1853), Oxford receives a remarkable tribute in high-flown rhetoric. In spite of all its faults, Oxford has pursued one ideal far more significantly than any other – ‘the truth that beauty and sweetness are essential characters of a complete human perfection.’9 It was this perfection that Arnold’s interpreters, rather than Arnold himself, sought to disseminate among the populace.
Later in the century, when the Board Schools were established and all working-class children were being drilled in the 3Rs, Thomas Wright, better known as ‘The Journeyman Engineer’, wrote of ‘popular culture’ in a manner shaped by Arnold’s aesthetic principles. Wright’s political suggestions for the improvement of the working classes, however, were at several removes from the idealism of Culture and Anarchy. Wright was intervening in a debate about literacy that appeared regularly in journals during the 1880s and 1890s. Discussion concentrated largely on three things: the deficiencies of elementary schooling; the low quality of working-class reading; and the consequent damage both were having on most working people. He begins with one of Arnold’s basic assumptions: that culture is founded in ‘sound common sense’ and ‘shrewd intelligence’. Proper use of these faculties of mind, therefore, will give rise to a state of well-being. But rather than make culture the objective for all classes (Arnold’s jokily named breeds of Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace; the upper, middle, and working classes, respectively), Wright decides to split culture into two. One kind of culture, of a ‘higher, more strictly aesthetic order’, is distinguished from another type, one with a ‘simpler, more robust sense’, namely ‘popular culture’. This division of educational interests has persisted in several strands of conservative thinking during the twentieth century.10 Wright, a radical for his time, turned to this model of different cultures – high culture and popular culture – as a plausible solution to improving the lives of working people.
The culture at the centre of Arnold’s human world is placed far too high for the working classes Wright is thinking of, and this is largely because of the marked rise in literacy in the 1860s and 1870s and the astonishing growth of penny fiction. He argues that culture is a relative term, which has different meanings depending on which class of people it refers to. Yet, like many of Arnold’s followers, Wright believes it is English literature, when carefully selected and presented to the people, that may act as the central civilizing agent to lead the masses towards bettering themselves. Here is his despairing account of the penny dreadfuls, which appropriate classics should replace:
Never before was there so little prospect of those given to such reading being driven to more wholesome mental food by a limited supply of garbage. In this respect the working classes were much more fortunately situated a generation ago than they are at this day. True, even the penny dreadfuls were not unknown, but every week did not bring forth its new one. Nor did they appeal so directly to boys as do the existing race of dreadfuls – The Boy Highwayman, The Boy Brigand, The Boy Pirate, The Boy King of the Outlaws, &c., are modern inventions. The long drawn out Mysteries of London and Mysteries of the Court, the leading dreadfuls of...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Original Copyright Page
  6. Table of Contents
  7. Introduction
  8. 1 Reading for the Empire
  9. 2 Schoolboys
  10. 3 Island stories
  11. 4 A man’s world
  12. 5 Empire boys
  13. Conclusion
  14. Further Reading
  15. Index