The true advent of the boy’s paper, then, came with Edwin J. Brett’s Boys of England in 1866. Though he started his career in penny dreadfuls with Newsagents’ Publishing Company, Brett soon recognized the profits to be had in printing a less inflammatory mass-market paper (Dunae 24). He effectively combined the sensational elements of the penny dreadful with the conservative structure of Boy’s Own Magazine and produced a weekly illustrated paper that cost his readers a single penny per issue (Boyd 33). The paper reached a circulation of around 250,000 in the 1870s and proved to be the model for every iteration of the boy’s paper that followed (Bristow 37). John Springhall, failing to recognize Brett’s conservative shift, classifies all of the publisher’s papers as penny dreadfuls (227), whereas Sheila Egoff dismisses the publisher’s papers as “typical in the steady deterioration of an already poor style, the inappropriateness of their illustrations, their generally careless make-up and wretched standards” (19). Yet the RTS’ Boy’s Own Paper (1879), often treated by academics as the prototypical Victorian boys periodical, was simply a competitive response to the success of Boys of England; borrowing from Brett’s image-based design, predominantly fictional content, fixed price and weekly issue. Kelly Boyd observes that control of the Boy’s Own Paper by a reputable organization meant that “boys were less fond of it than were their parents” (34). And though some members of the RTS criticized the Boy’s Own Paper for the secular nature of its content, the organization was ultimately willing to sacrifice morals for capital.
The paper Brett published that most embodied fin de siècle nationalism was altogether less successful than his long-running Boys of England. An offshoot publication inspired by the celebration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, Boys of the Empire unabashedly exploited the imperialist value system. Because of the nature of its capricious readership, it was not uncommon for publishers to produce multiple titles concurrently. When Boys of the Empire debuted in 1888, Brett was simultaneously publishing six weekly boys’ papers and over 100 shilling tales (Dunae 25). The content of this new magazine was not unlike that of Boys of England, relying chiefly on adventure fiction and short historical columns; the editor’s note at the beginning of the first bound volume of the paper makes a pointed attempt to lure Brett’s already existent audience to invest in yet another weekly paper:
It is now about twenty-one years since the youth of the United Kingdom were startled one morning by the appearance of a journal specially dedicated to their requirements, and written for them….It was a startling novelty, called The “Boys of England”…To-day another startling novelty is offered to the youth of this kingdom….
The shift in title is an indication of Brett’s confidence in the era’s strengthening imperialist values, reflecting the nation’s political posturing even in regards to its name. The older age of the characters in the stories may also have been a tribute to the coming of age of his readership. As the working class boy left the schoolyard in search of employment, he was accompanied by his adventure heroes.
Identified by only a small minority as the true originator of the boy’s paper, Brett’s publications have remained little analyzed despite having attracted a significant audience. Brett often occurs as a mere footnote in studies of print history, though he amassed a fortune in a fickle industry that rarely rewarded independent publishers. Yet his consistent energy and popular appeal to fin de siècle readers makes him a key figure in the formation of boyhood culture; perhaps even more so than his evangelical rivals because of his absolute content control. It is important to note that while the fiction stories that appeared in Brett’s magazines were not penned by him (Jack Harkaway, the most successful character created for Boys of England by Bracebridge Hemyngs, even spawned exclusive syndication) his was the only name that appeared on the issues. His presumption of responsibility for the development of the boy’s periodical, however, is ironically undermined by his historical exclusion from their study.
Despite the impressive circulation of his papers, the social class of Brett’s readership is not specifically known or explicitly determinable. Joseph Bristow calls Brett’s publications the first “respectable” juvenile fiction (31), while Kirsten Drotner insists that they were “invariably banned by conscientious parents” (75). Whatever the case may be, his contribution to print culture is significant simply because:
The problem was that the popular fiction turned out to be exactly what its name implies, and young readers of all classes were found to be devotees of the cheap and sensational books and periodicals. (Reynolds 23)
Brett’s enormous accomplishments lie in his business acumen and his awareness of his target audience’s desires. It is within this “tenuous balance between profits to the publishers and pleasure to the purchasers” (Drotner 4) that the term “imperialism” comes into play. Brett certainly exploited the era’s political discourse, but his readers were not averse to it. If he was not the primary source of colonial propaganda, what was responsible for the dissemination of imperial ideology? - next