Published by Chapman and Hall in two volumes in 1865, two decades after a nineteen-month serialisation and its appearance as two volumes of unequal length issued by Dublin publisher William Curry, Junior, Tom Burke of "Ours" is an early picaresque Bildungsroman belonging to Charles Lever's early period, written shortly after his sojourn in Brussels, where he was principally a physician. In 1842 Lever had returned to Dublin at the invitation of local printer and publisher William Curry, Junior, to edit Dublin University Magazine, the initial vehicle for Lever's many monthly serialisations. He struck up a friendship with the well-established author-editor William Makepeace Thackeray, then beginning his Irish tour of the Snob Papers. Truly prosperous for the first time in his life, Lever had set himself up in a mansion a few miles from Dublin, at Templeogue, where as a country gentleman he entertained Thackeray, who was then working on The Irish Sketch Book. Ironically, although they discussed each other's work, they never alluded (recalls Lever) to their current projects. However, Lever provided Thackeray with considerable information on Irish affairs. In gratitude, Thackeray dedicated The Sketch Book to Lever. Tom Burke of "Ours" continues the Service Novels of Harry Lorrequer and Jack Hinton, The Guardsman as Lever interpreted the form made popular by Captain Frederick Marryat's Frank Mildmay (1829) and Stories of Waterloo (1833) by William H. Maxwell.

And, as Lever's illustrator is once again Phiz (Hablột Knight Browne), the style of the monthly engravings remains somewhat caricatural, enabling readers to readily sort out each instalment's characters and settings, from February 1843 through September 1844, the period in which Dickens's principal illustrator was working on the Bildungsroman Martin Chuzzlewit (January 1843 through July 1844). Although Lever had no military background himself, Brussels afforded him considerable opportunity to observe half-pay British officers who became the models for his comic soldiers such as Major Monsoon and Captain Bubbleton, the latter whom he introduces in the very opening instalment of Tom Burke. Thus, the present "horse-racious and pugnacious" military novel is the third of his early novels set during the Napoleonic Wars, the first two in the series being Charles O'Malley, The Irish Dragoon (1841) and Jack Hinton, The Guardsman (1842). The period of serialisation for Tom Burke of "Ours", reflects what had become the standard for the Victorian novel ever since Chapman and Hall published Dickens's Pickwick Papers from April 1836 through November 1837), yielding a narrative-pictorial program of two full-page steel engravings for each instalment, plus an additional pair of plates for the final serial number. Phiz delighted in Lever's scenes of battle that involved cavalry, although such equine acrobatics as one finds in Lever's other Phiz-illustrated novels occur far less frequently in Tom Burke.

Stevenson in Dr. Quicksilver: The Life of Charles Lever (1939) notes that Lever revolted against Phiz's somewhat caricatural illustrations, and even considered enlisting the services of the noted French engraver, illustrator, and painter Tony Johannot (1803-1852) because he "would depict French scenes with more authenticity . . . [and because his] name would give a piquant novelty to the advertisements" (120). Indeed, the Frenchman would become popular for his illustrations of Sterne's Sentimental Journey (1857), and had already provided steel engravings for William Harrison Ainsworth's Windsor Castle (1842-1843) to supplement those of George Cruikshank.

In the 1844 novel, Lever uses the fortunes of the Irish orphan of good breeding, cheated out of his patrimony by his dead father's attorney, Basset, as a vehicle for exploring the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon himself from both an Irish and a French perspective. Lever had introduced the Emperor of the French in one of the closing scenes of Charles O'Malley, The Irish Dragoon, and seems to have seized his fourth novel as an opportunity to deal with the career of Napoleon from First Consul to his exile to Elba. "Rather confusingly announced as the second part of Our Mess, it was in fact an entirely separarte novel with its own title, Tom Burke of Ours, and the difficulties of handling its material soon absorbed a disproportionate amount of Lever's energy" (Stevenson 107). He had to give his protagonist-narrator a gentlemanly background with an oppressed childhood; inadvertently, he made Tom a violent nationalist when he decided "to imbue him so intensely with traits of his own land, to mark him out so distinctly Irish before launching him among Frenchmen, that he would have a place in the reader's mind, and be able to attach to himself an interest quite different from that of any other character in the story" (cited in Stevenson, 120). He carries Tom through the period of English repression that followed the collapsed rebellion of 1798, and then removed him to France, making his protagonist an officer and ardent supporter of Napoleon. The novelist's principal problem was accommodating the English readership to a figure both misunderstood and vilified. He could ill-afford to show the Emperor of the French winning military victories over British armies, despite his personal enthusiasm for The Little Corporal. Thus, he made sure that he introduced no such scene of battle, and focussed on "the campaigns in Italy, Germany, and Russia" (Stevenson, 121). Although Lever provides the occasional glimpse of Napoleon as dictator, he mitigates Tom's hero-worship by depicting his protagonist's relationship with the Emperor as uniformly positive: "in 1843 it was still daring — almost unheard-of — for a British author to admit any merits in the Corsican's character" (Stevenson, 121). Sadly, his choice of subject and strategy meant that he had to omit his characteristic humour; the only comic scenes are limited to those with the jovial Captain Bubbleton: "and even he is so exaggerated a type of the psychopathic boaster that we cannot laugh very comfortably at his delusions of grandeur" (Stevenson, 121). And Tom's erstwhile companion, 'Darby the Blast', is a delusional character who offers dubious comic relief. Another serious lapse is the novel's disjointed plot with challenging time-lapses.

Lever constructs a picaresque plot in which the adolescent runaway is befriended by a French officer (Charles de Meudon) who had assisted the Irish in the 1798 Rebellion; before dying, he introduces Tom to the French Polytechnique (military academy). See, for example, Phiz's entertaining illustration of Tom's military apprenticeship in Tom distinguishes himself in Chapter XXI, "The 'Ecole Militaire'" (June 1843), with the future Emperor of the French making an appearance as the nation's First Consul. After his military training, as an officer in the Hussars the young Irishman becomes dangerously involved with some Bourbonists plotting to overthrow Napoleon and restore the monarchy. Although Tom is briefly imprisoned as a peripheral plotter, de Meudon's sister secures his release. Even with his valiant service at the battles of Jena and Austerlitz, Tom remains under suspicion, and retires temporarily to Ireland to claim his inheritance. But quickly tiring of civilian life, Tom returns to France, with Napoleon personally promoting him to the rank of Colonel and bestowing upon him the Cross of the Legion for his heroism in battle against the Austrians. However, seeing his cause is lost after Leipzig, Napoleon advises Tom to return home. However, his interview with Marie de Meudon, now conveniently widowed, in the closing pages of the novel entirely changes his life's trajectory: she accepts his marriage proposal. Tom and Marie leave France together, although their destination remains a matter for the reader's speculation.

Geographical and Socio-political Associations: Victorian Ireland

The Novel's Twenty Serial Instalments, with Two Plates Each (1843-44)

The Two Volumes: Dublin: William Curry, 1844, and London: Chapman & Hall 1865

Instalment by Instalment Synopses, February 1843 through September 1844

Scanned images and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use the images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned them and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Buchanan-Brown, John. Phiz! Illustrator of Dickens' World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.

Lester, Valerie Browne Lester. Chapter 11: "'Give Me Back the Freshness of the Morning!'" Phiz! The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004. Pp. 108-127.

Lever, Charles. Tom Burke of "Ours." Dublin: William Curry, Jun., 1844. Illustrated by H. K. Browne. Rpt. London: Chapman and Hall, 1865. Serialised February 1843 through September 1844 in twenty parts. 2 vols.

Lever, Charles. Tom Burke of "Ours." Illustrated by Phiz [Hablột Knight Browne]. Novels and Romances of Charles Lever. Vols. I and II. In two volumes. Dublin: William Curry, 1844, and London: Chapman and Hall, 1865, Rpt. Boston: Little, Brown, 1907. Project Gutenberg. Last Updated: 27 February 2018.

Steig, Michael. Chapter Seven: "Phiz the Illustrator: An Overview and a Summing Up." Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington: Indiana U. P., 1978. Pp. 298-316.

Stevenson, Lionel. Dr. Quicksilver: The Life of Charles Lever. London: Chapman and Hall, 1939.

_______. "The Domestic Scene." The English Novel: A Panorama. Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin and Riverside, 1960.

Sutherland, John. "Tom Burke of "Ours"." The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford U. P., 1989. P. 632.

Created 18 September 2023

Last updated 7 December 2023