Empire Boys: Defining Masculinity at the Fin de Siècle

Empire Boys


While a small portion of academic scholarship has been devoted to the study of Victorian era juvenile literature, the sheer volume of periodicals produced during the period has made truly comprehensive historical analysis difficult. Studies have also inconsistently interpreted the "penny weekly" as a purely literary, social or political construct while ignoring its impact as an all-encompassing medium. Broad generalizations lump various styles and genres together in a way that disregards their complexity as material objects. To better understand how these papers captivated such a large audience, their visual and literary properties must be contextualized within the culture and print technology of the era. The purpose of this exhibit is to examine the stylized features of one particular magazine, Edwin J. Brett's Boys of the Empire as a tool for understanding the influence of imperialism in the cultivation of fin de siècle masculinity. What (if anything) does the periodical's viability in the marketplace say about the overarching ideology it intended to proliferate?

With technological improvements to the printing process coincident with burgeoning literacy rates—a result of the 1870 Education Act as well as reforms to child labor laws (Reynolds 5)—a new market of readers was available in fin de siècle England that had never before existed. Working class schoolboys had both leisure time and pocket money enough to justify entertainment consumerism. Beyond the classroom, penny dreadfuls helped satiate the rapacious appetite for reading material, but were often condemned for their glorification of criminals and gruesome portrayals of violence. The upper classes felt so threatened by a potential incitement of the masses that the offices of the Newsagent’s Publishing Company (which produced a number of dreadfuls including Wild Boys of London) was raided by the police in the 1890s (Bristow 37). Aside from possible disruption of the social order, the merit of these early juvenile publications called the legitimacy of universal literacy into question, just as other forms of “low” literature did in the larger culture of the periodical press. Because literacy historically implied greater access to religious texts, it is perhaps no coincidence that various evangelical societies sought to bring down the penny dreadfuls, in the interest of producing more suitable literature for children. The Religious Tract Society (RTS) was one such organization— it began publishing the Boy’s Own Magazine in 1855 (Bratton 133). Yet the disparity between these two types of publications was not enough to stem the popularity of the dreadfuls; Joseph Bristow suggests that the problem lay in the social class of readers targeted by each. The RTS was marketed to parents as suitable reading material, which, along with a high price of six pennies (Egoff 18), made the magazine more popular among middle class boys than their working class counterparts. Intro con't.