n his last, uncompleted novel, Denis Duval, Thackeray continues to explore boyhood, trying to draw a vigorous hero from it in a characteristic way — by setting his plot well in the past, when the young protagonist's struggles could be interlaced with stirring historical events. Perhaps this in itself is an admission of failure; but Denis is a natural little boy, not unlike Tommy (later, Colonel) Newcome during his difficult childhood in Chapter 2 of The Newcomes. Unfortunately, this "lively boy of good parts" (Denis Duval 503) does not get a chance to prove himself thoroughly: the narrative ends with the first shot of the fifteen-year-old boy's first naval engagement. Pip, on the other hand, is the last boy hero in Dickens's work. It is often suggested that the ill-natured youths who appear in his later novels, Charley Hexham in Our Mutual Friend and Deputy in Edwin Drood, reflect Dickens's loss of faith in childhood (see Wilson 200), his generally darker vision of life, and perhaps his own trials as a parent. But from the start, even from his hard-headed account of young offenders in "A Visit to Newgate" in Sketches by Boz, Dickens has shown that not all children turn out well. The only change is that after his success with Pip, Dickens no longer feels the need to work through the earliest stages of boyhood in such detail again.
Concern with children's upbringing, and interest in their personalities, received a fillip in the next decade of the nineteenth century with the publication of Francis Galton's English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1874). This crystallized the debate already implicit in Oliver Twist, over what determines a child's future, and to what extent. The self-help theme remained potent and appealing, though. Completed in the early '90s, Mrs Ward's David Grieve airs the nature versus nurture debate, and reflects the growing spiritual and moral uncertainties of the times, almost as amply as Hardy's Jude the Obscure. However, it is probably more representative than Hardy's novel in promoting self help as a solution to the problems of a difficult childhood. The Grieve siblings are the victims of both "bad blude" (1: 22) and bad nurture, and one of them, David's sister Louie, succumbs to their combined pressure. Yet her brother David is determined to make something of himself, and to a large extent succeeds. For him, the turning-point comes in his early teens when he takes Benjamin Franklin as one of his role models. Despite his later troubles, which are many, by and large David demonstrates the continued faith of his author and most of her contemporaries in the efficacy of human example, industry and moral vision. Within about seven months of its publication in January 1892, the novel had sold altogether 20,000 copies (Sutherland 140).
If there was one single message given to the boys of Queen Victoria's very long reign, it is undoubtedly that conveyed by Dickens in "Tom Tiddler's Ground," his Christmas story for 1861 (the year in which the publication of Great Expectations in All the Year Round was completed, and The Adventures of Philip began to appear in Cornhill Magazine). Here, Mr Traveller expresses his belief that, unlike Mr Mopes the Hermit who stays anxiously looking out of his barred window, we should all "arise and wash our faces and do our gregarious work and act and re-act on one another" (Christmas Stories 300). The Victorians' achievement was not simply to register a strong protest on the child's behalf in the field of soical reform, but, equally importantly, to encouage children to realise their own potential, and to move forward into an active participation in modern life with all its new opportunities. Although novelists working with the contradictory fictions of manliness in this period found it hard to produce impressive heroes, they made great efforts to do so, and these efforts are reflected in the struggles of their young male protagonists themselves. In many cases, these struggles are productive, and do make them heroes of their own lives. The disappointment which modern readers are apt to feel with the Victorian hero is often due to expectations which, like Pip's, need some readjustment.
Last modified 15 January 2011