So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
    So near is God to man,
    When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
    The youth replies, I can.
                 — Emerson, Voluntaries 466-67

decorated initial 'M'ost gender-oriented studies of the Victorian fiction period focus on the injuries done to girls by confining them to the home, and on their achievements in trying to break out of the domestic mould. More recently, however, attention has turned to the boys, with a degree of sympathy which is by no means misplaced. Brought up initially with the girls, but then asked to participate in a rapidly changing society in a way their sisters were not, the boys of this period faced considerably greater challenges than their sisters. This situation is reflected in the novels, but not simplistically: writers of both sexes analyse and explore their chief male protagonists, while also trying to establish their stature as heroes.

The old heroic ideal in one of Sir Joseph Noel Paton's illustrations for Aytoun's "Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers" (1863). [Click on thumbnail for larger image and more information.]

Earlier literary modes were minimally helpful to them here. There was nothing for boys on a par with the domestic ideal handed down to girls by Samuel Richardson's Pamela, though that too was to prove inadequate as the years went by. The same author's Sir Charles Grandison, a quintessentially and tediously proper and considerate gentleman, had limited appeal for the Victorians (see Vance 23-24). As for Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, he was both little more than child and somewhat less than a man in his concern for his chastity. Novelists had scant hope of injecting new life into these literary modes.

More promising was the older heroic ideal, which indeed had a new lease of life in the "cult of the hero" in the 1840s. But this old-style heroism with its "horses, castles and hardness" (Rosen 172) did not sit well with the growing sense of youthful vulnerability, changes in society itself, and the increasing scepticism of the later period. Nicholas Nickleby's brand of theatrical gallantry, for example, finds no place in Dickens's mature writing. In George Eliot's social-problem novel, Felix Holt another epoymous hero's bravery is acknowledged to be misdirected. Felix has the same "enkindled passionate enthusiasm" (317) as Nicholas and the heroes of old romance, but his valiant efforts produce only muddle, tragic misjudgement and imprisonment. Felix may well be "very noble" (449) but, as Eliot warns in her choice of epigraph for Chapter 30, his nature may be "too noble for the world" in which he finds himself. Novelists of Eliot's stature simply could not find in swashbuckling heroism a useful resolution of the various elements now involved in what Charles Reade called the "high idea" of manliness (271).

The emergence of a new kind of hero: pushed forward by Harry East, Tom Brown leads East and "Tadpole" Hall into the Doctor's study, in Ch.VI of Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays. [Click on thumbnail for larger image and more information.]

What could take its place? The "Biedermeier" hero who dwells in "a small world of good sense and good manners, domestic pleasures and the cult of a gentle, well-groomed nature" (Praz 118)? Or perhaps Samuel Smiles's similar but more aspirational, altogether edgier mix of "self-culture, self-discipline ... honest and upright performance of individual duty" (v) with "heroic self-denial and manly tenderness" in Self-Help (1859)? What is clear is that, defying past assumptions about courtly behaviour and derring-do, boys were now expected to be sensitive as well as independent and dependable, and to operate within the constraints of middle-class society. It is hardly surprisingly, then, that the heroes who begin to emerge in the novels excite at least as much sympathy as admiration. Yet perhaps it is largely the lingering fiction of male bravado that prevents us from appreciating the strongest of them more fully.

The following discussion is divided roughly according to the ages of the characters, with the focus falling successively on those novelists who examine the different stages of male development. Anne Brontë struggles with the dilemmas of appropriate parenting; Emily Brontë and Charles Reade show the problems that beset young rebels; Thomas Hughes, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray take up the challenge of developing schoolboy heroes in an age when hero-worship was in the air; authors right across the board, including George Eliot, encourage greater self-reliance; while Dickens and Thackeray are among those who work towards a viable and impressive synthesis of manly virtues in early adulthood.

Related Material

Last modified 15 January 2011