Adventure Fiction and the Excitement of ImaginationIn his essay on the construction of Victorian reality, Christopher Kent describes the tangible effect of the periodical press on the era’s social politics: “Dickens implicitly maintained that the limits of fiction were the bounds of the possible. These, arguably, were also the limits accepted by the common mind. And these limits were largely set by the press” (8). Establishing the precedent for fin de siècle boy’s papers, Brett omitted the many practical “how-to” style columns common to the RTS’ Boy’s Own Magazine in favor of somewhat reformed penny dreadful adventure fiction. Particularly in a paper with an imperial scope, the limits Brett established with this structure were essentially boundless—allowing for exotic encounters and previously unimaginable worlds. Ironically enough, however, the cover story for the first seventeen issues of Boys of the Empire was “The Master of the Sword, or, The Brother Apprentices,” a story set in London at the turn of the eighteenth century. The protagonists are two disinherited, orphaned brothers apprenticed to their cutler uncle. Stylistically, the tale is characterized by clipped dialogue, fast pacing and exaggerated dramatic irony. Conveniently master swordsmen, the two brothers become embroiled in engagements and plots of vengeance through chance encounters with various characters, supplied by the author at whim. Though not explicitly a tale of imperialism, the Ashcroft brothers embody Brett’s brand of Victorian masculinity through their mastery of weaponry and haughty fearlessness, coupled with an unwavering defense of honor. The two teens are models of self-improvement for the working class boy. In a typical scene from the February 6, 1888 issue, the eldest brother taunts a foe:
“Talk thus to a fool sir,” replied Edward, “not to me. I have no fear of you. We know that we are penniless and homeless, but while we have hands we can make swords and use them too, if required.”
Brett’s themes of bravado and unnecessary violence evoke the idea that the British imperial attitude is most effective when tempered by education. The technically civilized clause “if required” is the quintessential mark of the mannered Victorian gentleman. At the story’s conclusion in the May 28, 1888 issue, the two brothers marry and give up their adventures to resume peaceful careers in their cutlery firm.
Hints of imperialism are evident also in the necessary supporting character of the cutler’s assistant. A black giant—the figure of “other”—provides the brute force (and, often enough, level-headedness) to aid in the duo’s intricate escapades. Surprisingly, the depictions of young women throughout Boys of the Empire are quite flattering, suited to the romantic idealism of adventure fiction. Though repeatedly objects for the Ashcroft brothers’ rescue, whether kidnapped or forced into disadvantageous marriages, feminine characters are generally portrayed as independent and strong-willed. In the inaugural episode, the brothers’ uncle refuses to agree to a proposal for his daughter’s hand: “She is not mine to give,” he replied. “She is—and always has been—her own mistress.” Though not always consistent in this liberal treatment of the female sex, Boys of the Empire inadvertently provided a spirited, adventurous female prototype for the Victorian girl, who read the paper in no small number (as evidenced by the quantity of letters to the editor from young women).
In contrast to the imperialistic framing of fiction in Boys of the Empire, the serial stories in Brett’s earlier Boys of England were directed towards a younger audience. A representative fiction tale from an 1882 issue, titled “The Gipsy Schoolboy; Or, The Mystery of a Dark Night” has mischievous young schoolboys as its principal actors. And while the style of composition is similar in terms of narrative voice, the events take place on a much smaller scale. Schoolyard pranks and bullying are more common than mystery, intrigue and murder. In the December 29, 1882 issue, the boys return to boarding school after a visit to the countryside:
"Well, boys,” said Rupert, as they made their way gaily homeward, “what do you think of the day’s fun ?”
The answer was unanimous.
Everyone had enjoyed himself immensely, and when they reached the academy, they one and all voted the holiday a success.“
The innocence of these early heroes and the pure pleasure—and ultimately less didactic character—of their adventures emphasizes the undercurrent of imperialism that exists in Boys of the Empire. A second serial fiction text published in Boys of the Empire endeavored to transform the innocent schoolboy of Boys of England. “From School to Battle-Field, A Story of Two Boys’ Lives” chronicles the growth of its protagonists from the boarding-school yards of 1840s England to the front lines of the Empire. An inconsistency in the temporality of the story, however, causes the grown young men to join the British army in time for the Napoleonic Wars. The pair of foundling brothers, well-liked by their classmates and teachers, naturally develop into top-notch officers. The school bully, on the other hand, becomes a renegade captain and a spy for the French army. The pair of brothers mysteriously locate lost aristocratic relations and retire happily to England, while the bully dies tragically—his taking of a bullet is followed by a long fall into the Seine. Again, the proper use of masculinity is made absurdly clear.
Still more serials in Boys of the Empire, particularly “Canadian Jack, Or, The Mystery of the Old Log Hut” and “Forecastle Tom Or, Adventures by Land and Sea” confront the problem of colonialism even more directly. These stories take place at the furthest fringes of the empire’s influence. The interspersed historical stories (set in England) provide a nationalistic background from which this theme of imperialism extends. By focusing exclusively on either the past or the distant reaches of empire, imperialist fiction tacitly prevents the Victorian boy from contemplating his contemporary world, and instead constructs an irresistible sense of optimism for the future. Scott Bennett, writing on the general influence of the fin de siècle press, argues that “reading…was in the most fundamental sense an assertion of freedom against lives that were otherwise all too often miserably constrained” (252). But can an imaginative relationship such as this really be considered freedom? Brett’s conservative fiction essentially provides cultural amnesia as a solution to social and political “constraints,” trapping its readers in—rather than freeing them from—a cult of imperialist ideology. - next