he heroic idea of manhood was as much in the air for the boys of early- to mid-Victorian England as philanthropy was for girls. To ancient deeds of valour was now attached a new sense not simply of divine approval, but of imperative. Charles Kingsley is remembered for his blood-and-thunder Westward Ho!, but he also wrote The Heroes before his even bigger success with The Water Babies. The Heroes is a vigorous retelling, originally for the author's own children, of the adventures of Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, and Theseus. As a prelude to Story II on the Argonauts, Kingsley tells his young readers: "there is a better thing on earth than wealth, a better thing than life itself; and that is, to have done something before you die, for which good men may men may honour you, and God your Father smile upon your work"(260).
Broad Church muscular Christians like Kingsley were not alone in seeking to inspire and invigorate the nation's youth. The Young England movement with its High Church Tractarian connections was making its own very special patriotic appeal to the young. While girls were urged to tend the casualties of industrial advance, boys were called on to engage body and soul in the struggle to bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor. In the concluding paragraphs of Sybil, Disraeli announces that "it is youth that alone can mould the remedial future." Whatever the ideological distance between these two movements, they concurred with the general tendency of the Victorians to believe in the regenerative potential of the young, and made every effort to harness it to their own causes.
This certainly made for stronger heroes in two types of the novels: social problem novels, and children's ones. Disraeli's own hero in Sybil, Egremont, receives among the poor, and from the inspiration of the eponymous Sybil, the rigorous moral and political education that, we are told, he had not been given at Eton and Oxford. Sweeping dramatically down from the terrace of Mowbray Castle at the end, to rescue Sybil from the drunken mob, young Egremont is reminiscent of a gallant knight defending his maiden in distress: Disraeli's neo-feudalism is more than a match for Carlyle's. This kind of thing also has a place in boys' stories throughout the century, reaching its apogee in G. A. Henty's patriotic and resolute young heroes, in books with stirring titles like Held Fast for England, about the defence of Gibraltar. Henty's popularity indicates the lasting glamour of "derring-do" as a component of manhood in the Victorian imagination, as well as the prevailing imperialist ideology.
Title page of George Meredith's fantasy, Farina, by Walter Crane. Guy de Goshawk, an old style hero, has rescued Margarita from a robber baron; Farina, who has yet to prove himself a hero, droops on the other side of her. [Click on thumbnail for larger image and a full commentary.]
In "On Heroes and Hero-Worship," Thomas Carlyle claimed that to lose faith in the possibility of greatness was, in effect, to despair of humanity (see 177). Nurtured on boys' stories and educated in the classics and, as far as Anthony Trollope could recall in his autobiography, nothing else, the educated boys of the time were primed to hold onto that faith. It was natural, then, that boarding schools with their insular and hierarchical structure should have become hot-beds of hero-worship. Homoerotic elements came close to the surface in a number of novels that dealt with this. When, for example, E. F. Benson's eponymous young hero, David Blaize, lies seriously injured in the sick-bay, his beloved Frank, three years his senior, kindly comes back from Cambridge to be with him. The result is not an archetypal Victorian child death-bed scenes: lamplight falls like a halo around the visitor's rather than around the patient's head, and David rallies in the presence of his beloved older friend.
As for the major authors, however, there was a more questioning approach. Very often, they seem to accept that the hero's attachment to his hero is a weakness that has to be overcome as he grows up. Idols like David Copperfield's dashing Steerforth, or Harry Richmond's head boy, Heriot, in George Meredith's The Adventures of Harry Richmond are cut down to size or discredited later. As well as shattering the tendency towards hero-worhip , thsi shatters the kind of symbiosis found in pairings of dynamic and sensitive youths. Disillusion and separation are the inevitable results. Steerforth, for instance, is removed from David by force. During the famous tempest at Yarmouth in Chapter 55, he bows out of the younger man's life with a last flourish of his distinctive red cap from the sinking ship: Yet it is doubtful whether the strongest attachments are ever really lost. David's recognition of the body in front of him on the beach at the very end of that chapter is devastating, marked by an utter simplicity of diction and the unforgettable rhymn of its poetry: "And on that part of it where she and I had looked for shells, two children — on that part of it where some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had been scattered by the wind — among the ruins of the home he had wronged — I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school"
The charismatic leader himself has his own problems, his own temptations. Perhaps the novel has never been a very congenial home for this type. To borrow Dickens's own imagery, he easily runs into the heavy seas of waywardness, and if he does so, he must then be hurried off the page like the young heirs of Heathcliff. If this response is seen from a Foucauldian perspective, as part of society's vast and complex "'normalizing" machinery, it is a machinery in which the author is deeply implicated. In the case of Tom Brown's submission to the examination system, there is no regret at all; but where an admired older boy is concerned, compliance does not preclude regret. To the contrary, regret is apt to reverberate through the narrative, and the devotee of such a figure, on whom the the whole forward movement of the novel attends, may never recover enough to be truly the "hero of [his] own life" (David Copperfield 49).
- Boys Will Be Boys, and Girls Should Be Girls: Gender in Children's Literature
- Thomas Carlyle's "On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History — An Overview
Last modified 15 January 2011