An excerpt from
A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter
From Islands to Empires: Storytelling for a Boy’s World
Almost immediately after Treasure Island appeared, Robert Louis Stevenson’s friend W. E. Henley praised it in the Saturday Review. Calling it a work “touched with genius,” “a masterpiece of narrative,” and one “rich in excellent characterization,” he concludes: “It is the work of one who knows all there is to be known about ’Robinson Crusoe’.” Stevenson himself had long acknowledged his debt to Defoe, noting at one point that the parrot in his novel “once belonged to Robinson Crusoe” and offering this reflection at length:
It is the grown people who make the nursery stories; all the children do, is jealously to preserve the text. One out of a dozen reasons why Robinson Crusoe should be so popular with youth, is that it hits their level in this matter to a nicety; Crusoe was always at makeshifts and had, in so many words, to play at a great variety of professions; and then the book is all about tools, and there is nothing that delights a child so much.
Central to the popularity of Crusoe is play: the use of tools, the world of things behind the novel. A good part of that world emerged from the Lockean landscape of impressions and particulars. But that world takes on new textures in an age of industry. The mechanics of guns and charts, of locomotive engines and explosives, of cigarettes and canned goods, all fed into a later fascination with the Crusoe-hero’s mastery of the mass of material things before him. Nineteenth-century characters from the works of Captain Marryat to those of H. Rider Haggard all had this streak of ingenuity. And for the twentieth century, this fascination with dexterity continued to embrace the resourceful soldiers of wartime and the almost magical abilities of the American television character MacGyver.
Stevenson set Treasure Island in the eighteenth century, in part to evoke a swashbuckling, pre-industrial time of adventure, but in part, too, to relocate what was for his own time the growing focus of adventure. Throughout the Victorian age, the boy’s imaginative geography was moving from the island to the continent. Empire had displaced exploration as the motive of the ocean voyage. Encounters with non-Europeans took on new detail in Africa, India, or Asia. Adventure heroes appeared less and less to animate a Crusoe-like experience of independence and more and more to exemplify public and military service. The individual engagement of a Crusoe and a Friday gave way to the commanders’ control of tribes. The history of boys’ books lives along the axes of the island and the continent, and their different locales inform, as well, the presentations of the school, the body, and the family.
What does it mean to be a boy? Aesop’s fable of the runaway horse reminds us that boyhood needs to be reined in, and the traditions of classical, medieval, and early modern instruction iterate advice to sons: behave well, keep clean, speak clearly, mind your studies. By the eighteenth century, these patterns of advice had taken on a new flavor. For not only did boys have to act as social, moral beings: they needed a style.
The famous letters of Lord Chesterfield to his illegitimate son—written in the 1730s and 1740s and published, posthumously, as an advice book by his widow—illustrate this shift in focus. Awkwardness, bashfulness, ineptitude: such are the social vices of the child, and Chesterfield advises a behavior keyed to ease with both the word and the body. After a catalogue of all the bad forms of behavior, he summarizes: “From this account of what you should not do, you may easily judge what you should do: and a due attention to the manners of people of fashion, and who have seen the world, will make it habitual and familiar to you.” Manners make the man (to evoke an old axiom), though here the manners extend to expression. “There is, likewise, an awkwardness of expression and words most carefully to be avoided; such as false English, bad pronunciation, old sayings, and common proverbs; which are so many proofs of having kept bad and low company.” Chesterfield advises verbal ease, a mark of breeding and accomplishment. His claims grow not just out of fatherly concern. They reflect what was happening in the history of the English language in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For the first time in Britain, speech became equated with social status (not just regional origin). Education in the public schools and universities was education in verbal performance. Public style became verbal style. Reading Chesterfield’s advice, we can see something of this social history of English—a new concern with accent, a proof of being well-read, an attention to the niceties of grammar. Propriety was coming into being as a social concept, the word having originally meant verb agreement or grammatical concord. When Samuel Johnson, in his great Dictionary of 1755, wrote how the low and vulgar “forget propriety” in language, what he actually meant was that they speak ungrammatically. By the end of the eighteenth century, propriety had come to connote social as well as linguistic correctness. Laurence Sterne writes, in A Sentimental Journey (1762), of what he calls propriété, a kind of Gallic flair for the appropriate. By 1782, Fanny Burney could remark on “such propriety of mind as can only result from the union of good sense and virtue.”
Lord Chesterfield’s advice fits into an emerging world of social habit as linguistic style—a union of good sense and virtue, spoken well. To be a boy in this age is, increasingly, to be well-spoken. If we turn to the emerging genre of the school story, we can see how this facility with words becomes the key to social mastery. Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays is perhaps the best known of these kinds of stories. Set at Rugby school during the days of Dr. Thomas Arnold in the 1830s, the novel (first published in 1857 and continuously in print thereafter) tells the story of a young boy growing up in rural southwestern England who, by dint of chance, hard work, and connections, eventually finds himself at Rugby. From his first day at the school, lessons in verbal style are everywhere.
Tom by this time began to be conscious of his new social position and dignities, and to luxuriate in the realized ambition of being a public-school boy at last, with a vested right of spoiling two seven-and-sixers in half a year.
The key to institutional success is how one “cuts up”: behaves, cuts a figure, acts and speaks (the idiom seems to have emerged from school and sporting slang in the mid-nineteenth century). Answer straightforward: how you speak is how you are. The ideals of the public-school boy are ideals that match social and verbal life.
But this exchange, like so many in the school-story tradition, is itself a lesson in a verbal idiom. Part of the initiation for the new student lies in learning coded language. Schools all have their slang, and what books such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays do is educate the reader as they educate their hero. Reading such books becomes a process of socialization. Just as young Tom enters a new and unexpected world, so, too, the reader enters it. We are all Tom Brown, learning the ropes at Rugby. The young boy’s fantasy of public-school life lives in mastery of the argot of playing field and common room.
Such mastery takes us back to the world of Crusoe—or at least the Stevensonian imagination of Crusoe. Nothing delights a child so much as tools. But nothing delights a boy so much as new words for those tools—or, for that matter, words themselves as tools. If Crusoe plays at a variety of professions, then the schoolboy plays, too, at a range of roles: the scholar, the athlete, the lover. Tom Brown is a kind of Crusoe of the school, and he finds there the tools of getting by.
Over the door were a row of hat-pegs, and on each side bookcases with cupboards at the bottom; shelves and cupboards being filled indiscriminately with school-books, a cup or two, a mousetrap, and candlesticks, leather straps, a fustian bag, and some curious-looking articles, which puzzled Tom not a little, until his friend explained that they were climbing irons, and showed their use. A cricket bat and small fishing-rod stood up in one corner. (pp. 1837–38)
School stands here like some ship of the imagination, filled, as Crusoe’s was, with the necessities of life. The list of things here compares with Defoe’s lists of things—catalogues of particulars, objects whose functions in the world need to be understood. These are the items that enable Tom and his companions to play at a variety of professions: the cricketer, the fisherman, the mountain climber.
If school is a ship, it is also an island. East gives Tom the lay of the land: “And all this part where we are is the little side ground, right up to the trees, and on the other side of the trees is the big side ground, where the great matches are played. And there’s the island in the furthest corner; you’ll know that well enough next half, when there’s island fagging. I say, it’s horrid cold, let’s have a run across” (p. 1839). Old Rugby really had an island, but the landscape is more metaphorical than mapped out. The bad weather leads not to retreat but to running; all is sport here, all performance, all panache. It is as if the public school is now an island imperium, and East its tour guide. “East was evidently putting his best foot foremost, and Tom, who was mighty proud of his running, and not a little anxious to show his friend that although a new boy he was no milksop, laid himself down to work in his very best style. Right across the close they went, each doing all he knew, and there wasn’t a yard between them when they pulled up at the island moat” (pp. 1839–40). All friendships ultimately take us back to Crusoe and his Friday: the one old, the other young; the one a teacher, the other the pupil. And in a way, this episode returns us to that island world, where putting your best foot forward leaves a print on history.
If school life is progress across islands, it is, too, control of a continent. Nowhere do verbal skill and bodily performance, tools and techniques, come together better than in sports. Rugby football was that school’s enduring legacy. But, as the novel makes clear, what is more important than the game is narrating the game. More vivid than experience is the verbal recounting of experience, and this is the lesson of the boy’s world. Nowhere is this clearer than in sports reporting. And so, in the midst of Tom Brown’s story, we move from the past to the present tense of life.
“Hold the punt-about!” “To the goals!” are the cries, and all stray balls are impounded by the authorities.…
I have extracted these excitements from a span of five pages of the novel, attending to those moments when the book itself becomes the sports announcer. Direct quotations jockey for attention with directed claims: look, see. These are imperatives to the reader, ways of getting us to feel the game in progress. Boys’ lives live in the present tense. Their drama lies in every escapade told as a competition or a contest. Whether it be in the hushed tones of suspense (now he approaches the ball … carefully takes aim) or in the exaltation of success (he shoots, he scores!), the boy’s life tells itself as it is being lived.
This rhetoric of present-tense adventure draws on sports reporting, school tales, and team competition. But it also draws on new technologies. If anything made possible a life lived in the present tense, it was the telegraph. By the late 1840s, news could be transmitted almost instantaneously between distant points. Communication took on a magical quality. By the 1870s, Thomas Edison—whose life almost immediately became the subject of boys’ books—was “the Wizard of Menlo Park.” Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (published in 1889) reports how Hank Morgan, transported back to King Arthur’s times, could awe the populace with his electrical inventions (telegraph and telephone) and make old Merlin look the fool. Even earlier in the century, the telegraph was almost beyond comprehension. Samuel F. B. Morse, the telegraph’s inventor, sent the first message in 1844: “What hath God wrought?” A decade later, Hans Christian Andersen could reflect in his autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life, on how the telegraph made possible a new link between Europe and America. Telegraph boys were everywhere—for they were boys, taking on the magic of communication, translating the Morse code, messaging great news across the seas and continents (Thomas Edison got his start as a telegraph boy on the railroad in the 1840s). Even at the end of the nineteenth century, when the telephone had displaced the telegraph as the electrical marvel of the age, popular commentary described it in terms of boys’ adventure books. The Electrical Review of 1889 wrote, of a long-distance call from New York to Boston, “It beat all to smash all the old incantations of Merlin and the magic of Munchhousen [sic], Jules Verne, or Haggard.”
Electrical communication compressed the time between event and understanding, and in the mid-nineteenth century, telegraph boys throughout the world were soon clicking tales of war. Battle took on a new immediacy with the telegraph. Soon, it was possible to recount warfare in the present tense—as if it were a game of rugby—and war reporting, much like sports reporting, shaped the journalistic idiom of the age. The Crimean War of 1853–56 was the first sustained conflict in which the telegraph and the railroad made possible an immediacy of reportage. Crimea displayed massive new guns, technological advances in firepower, and social innovations (cigarettes, the legend goes, were invented when a soldier got his pipe shot out from under him and started wrapping his tobacco in the empty cartridge paper used for guns). But that war also maintained, in the face of innovation, old ideals of honor. Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” is but the most famous lesson of an ideal, if outmoded, chivalry, and in literary treatments such as this one, boys’ imaginations moved from the sailor and his island to the soldier and his field. There is nothing that delights a child so much as tools, and Crimea made them new.
In enabling the development of new technologies and styles of warfare, Crimea shaped an idiom for boyhood fantasy and literary style. The war contributed to an imperial imagination for the boyish reader, an imagination sustained by successive encounters: the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the ensuing placement of the subcontinent under direct control of the British crown; the Anglo-Afghan Wars, which continued off and on from the late 1830s until 1919; the search for the headwaters of the Nile by Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke in the 1860s and 1870s; the discovery of David Livingstone by Henry Stanley in 1871; the Zulu War of 1879; the massacre of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1885 and the later retaking of the Sudan by Kitchener at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898; and the Second Boer War of 1899–1902. Central Asia, India, Africa: these were the spaces of colonial emprise and the imaginative spaces for the reader.
These spaces often conjure, for the modern reader, images of Rudyard Kipling and his Kim, his Jungle Book, his Mandalay. Kipling has had an undeniable impact on our impressions of this age. And yet, for the late nineteenth century, far more immediate and popular were words by writers such as H. Rider Haggard and G. A. Henty—prolific chroniclers of boyhood fantasy and fascination. Their stories appeared in such publications as The Boy’s Own Paper and The Union Jack—British penny journals blending school tales and adventure, breathlessly told and brilliantly illustrated. To see how sport and war shaped boyhood storytelling, just set copies of these two papers side by side. The first issue of The Boy’s Own Paper (1879) offers, on its front page, “My First Football Match,” complete with a vivid drawing of the scrum. The reader’s eye moves from the text—where the narrator delights in being chosen for his school team, “whose glory it was to fight the battles of [the] school”—to the mass of boys falling on the player with the ball. Now look at the first issue of The Union Jack (1880), and the eye moves similarly from the text (recounting “the exploits and adventures of an Irish midshipman”) to the picture, as a group of sailors and mounted soldiers clash. The two pictures organize themselves in strikingly similar ways; the eye moves along a swift diagonal of desire.
Recent critics of this kind of literature have made much of the imperial imagination, of the sports ideal, and of the material and social culture that gave rise to easily affordable newspapers, books, and magazines to feed the fantasies of British boys. Joseph Bristow’s Empire Boys makes clear the relationships of class and culture, market forces and political propaganda governing the arc of reading from the age of Captain Marryat to that of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And yet what interests me, again, is tone: What is the feel of the boy’s book? What are the narrative techniques, the idioms and images that give voice to those ideologies of empire or adventure? In what tense is imagination written?
For answers, I start with this remarkable passage from Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), narrated by the explorer Allan Quatermain:
Just at that moment the sun came up gloriously, and revealed so grand a sight to our astonished eyes that for a moment or two we even forgot our thirst.
Bristow has made much of this selection, noting how it offers up “the sexual geography of a dark and unexplored continent,” and finding in this novel, as well as in Haggard’s later She (1887), a powerful association between sexual and political conquest. “As Europe is to Africa,” he summarizes, “so is man to woman.” But what I think is noteworthy here is that this is a story less of action than of remembrance. The narrator is miles and years away from the event. He recalls, in the safety of the study, an encounter so amazing and so awesome that words nearly fail: “I am impotent even before its memory.” This is a storyteller who displaces sexual performance onto words. The very massiveness of his description, its piles of nouns and adjectives, its swirling sentences, its constant asides—these are attempts to recreate in words the threat and power of the scene. The subject of this passage is, as we work through it, less and less the landscape that we see than the writer’s struggle to describe it. This remains an essay in style.
And that is my point. From Lord Chesterfield onward, the style of manhood was a verbal one. The reader learns from Quatermain how to recall and how to write. The challenge is the challenge of description, as if we are watching him hack his way through a verbal jungle, as if the ascent of mountains pales before the marshaling of sentences. We lose ourselves in the prosody of the passage: the alliteration of “perfectly precipitous” and “cloud-clad”; the self-conscious sublimity of the “majestic sight,” the “strange vapours and clouds,” the “pure and gigantic outlines,” and the image of the mountains “showing ghostlike through the fleecy envelope.” King Solomon’s Mines teaches how to write the story of adventure. It is a tale less of the world than of the book.
The lessons of narration and description fill the books of G. A. Henty, the most prolific of the imperial boys’ writers of the late nineteenth century. Such volumes as With Clive in India, With Kitchener in the Soudan, and With Roberts to Pretoria (and more than a hundred others) established a basic pattern. A young boy, often the child of British colonists, finds adventure at the side of a great leader. The boy grows as an ethical participant in the colonial world, and in that growth, his life calls attention to the childishness of a native populace. Recall Crusoe with his Friday: “His very Affections were ty’d to me, like those of a Child to a Father.” Colonist and colonizer fit the Crusoe pattern, and Henty’s books did more than simply offer escape for readers island-bound in Britain. They made clear that it was those white, British boys who could grow into men, and that their manhood in the empire kept the colonized a child.
Henty’s own life embodied all the major nineteenth-century experiences that shaped the boys’ book. At Westminster School and at Cambridge, he was an avid sportsman. He boxed, he wrestled, and he rowed. He worked in his father’s coal mines. He enlisted in the British Army, serving in Crimea as a member of the Army Hospital Commissariat. He chronicled the soldier’s grim experience, and his letters to his father—vivid, detailed, and richly worded—were soon sent to newspapers eager for reports of the conflict. These early publications gained Henty a place as a war correspondent. Throughout the 1860s and early 1870s, he reported from Italy, Spain, France, Serbia, Abyssinia, and West Africa.
This blend of sportsmanship and newspapering gives Henty’s prose its immediacy. One of my favorites among his books is With Buller in Natal, or A Born Leader (1901), a book not just about white and black but about white and white, English and Boer. Young Chris, the hero of the story, is sixteen when the war breaks out. His opening description brings together all the idioms of sportsmanship and hard work central to the ideals of late Victorian boys’ books. But it recalls, too, the outlines of Henty’s own life. It is as if Henty has given us a fantasy of his own boyhood—an imaginative recreation of his youth in school, in sport, and in the mines.
The lad was a fine specimen of the young Uitlander. A life passed largely in the open air, hard work and exercise, had broadened his shoulders and made him look at least a year older than he really was. He was a splendid rider and an excellent shot with his rifle, for his father had obtained a permit from the authorities for him to carry one, and he could bring down an antelope when running at full speed as neatly as any of the young Boers. Four days a week he had spent in the mines, for his father intended him to follow in his footsteps, and he had worked by turns with the miners below and the engineers on the surface, so that he might in the course of a few years be thoroughly acquainted with all the details of his profession.
If Haggard turns Africa into a body, Henty turns the body into Africa. His physical description of young Chris—in its own way as powerfully sexual as Haggard’s vision of the mountains—lingers on details of control and dominance. Pity the antelope, or any enemy before his sights.
And in the young man’s sights, too, is the strife of southern Africa. “He deeply resented the position in which the British population in the Transvaal were placed, the insolence of the Boers towards them, and their brutal cruelty towards the natives.” The Anglo Uitlanders, he goes on, “though forming the majority of the population, and the source of all the wealth of the country, and paying all the taxes, were yet treated as an outcast race, and deprived of every right possessed by people of all civilized nations.” And if there were any doubts about the Boers themselves, Henty quickly erases them.
They were indeed as unsavoury in appearance as they were brutal in manner. Water is scarce in the Transvaal, and is used most sparingly for all purposes of cleanliness. The Boer sleeps in his clothes, gives himself a shake when he gets up, and his toilet is completed, unless on very exceptional occasions when he goes outside the door to the water-cask, fills his hands with water, and rubs them over his face. . . . In dress the Boer is almost universally slovenly, his clothes hang about him stained and discoloured by long usage. In the majority of cases he is altogether without education, and very many Boers are scarcely able to sign their names. Most of them wear beards and long unkempt hair. But in point of physique they are fine men, tall and powerfully, though loosely, built, but capable of standing great fatigue if necessary, although averse to all exercise save on horseback. . . . There was no attempt whatever at uniformity of dress. Most of the men wore high riding boots. Some of the young men from the towns were in tweed suits, the vast majority wore either shooting jackets or long loose coats; some were in straw hats, but the elder men all wore large felt hats with wide brims. They were all, however, similarly armed with rifles of the best and most modern construction. Their general appearance was that of a large band of farmers of the roughest type and wholly without regard for their personal appearance.
In this extended passage, Henty relies on the long tradition of description that lingers over externals to mark internal character. Crusoe’s detailed portrait of Friday—his hair, his skin color, his eyes, his overall demeanor—chimes behind this portrait of the Boer. So, too, does the legacy of Lord Chesterfield or Tom Brown. For what this whole tradition teaches is a way of seeing: a method of describing individuals through dress and bearing; an equation of virtue with hygiene, of cleanliness with godliness. How a man cuts up, East had advised young Tom, is everything. And in the cut of Boer clothes lies the stain of inferior character.
Henty’s descriptiveness comes less from life than from literature. It is a trope, an invocation of a style of writing and a technique of the novel of encounter going back to Robinson Crusoe. And if Crusoe’s is a world not just of visual description but of writing (the pen and ink, the need for contracts, the narrator’s journal), so, too, is Henty’s. In a remarkably self-conscious moment, Henty shows Chris planning an attack on the Boers with his friends. They have enlisted in the army, and they camp before the battle. Chris sets out a plan, but he does so not by extemporizing and orating, but by reading.
“Very well, then, it shall be so,” Chris said. “To-morrow we shall certainly do some scouting, but in a day or two you may be shut up here; and until we get away there will be no scouting to be done. We must have some signals. Suppose we are scattered over two or three miles, we may want to assemble, and must be able to signal. I thought of it before we started from home, and put down in my pocket-book the sort of thing that I fancied would be wanted. I will read it out to you.”
Chris runs through the plan, his friends take notes, and then “there was silence and then the books were closed.” He then addresses them:
When we break up into four parties, each party must scatter, keeping three or four hundred yards apart. On arriving at any swell or the crest of a hill, a halt must be made, and every foot of the country searched by your field glasses, no matter how long it takes. You must assure yourself that there are no moving objects in sight. When you get near such a point you must dismount, and, leaving your horse, crawl forward until you reach a point from where you have a good view, and on no account stand up. While you are making your observations any Boers who might be lying in sight would be certain to notice a figure against the skyline, and we know that many of them are provided with glasses as good as our own. We must be as careful as if we were out after game instead of men. You all know these things as well as I do, but I want to impress them upon you. You see, they have captured five of the Natal police, who are a very sharp set of fellows. However, a few days’ scouting will show us far better what is required than any amount of thinking beforehand.
This is the language of the correspondent, an account not of a battle lived but of a story written. Chris grows not simply as an active boy, but as a writing boy. His manhood comes through literacy; the Boers, by contrast, “are scarcely able to sign their names.” Chris and his fellows live in signs: their battle plans are keyed to signals. This is a war that hinges on the skill of noticing “a figure against the skyline.” It is a war of field glasses as much as firearms. Now we are back in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, where the narrative impels us to behold: “now look”; “but see.” “You see,” Chris says to get attention—but in this phrase, he conjures up all that this battle is about: seeing and reading, finding figures, learning to discern.
What Henty, Haggard, and the range of school tales, sports reporting, correspondents, and Crusoevians set out to teach was that the boy’s life was a world of reading; that it centered on discerning signs and symbols; that the words you spoke were as important as the clothes you wore; and that experience was always lived as if it were a story told. Throughout the works I have explored here, there is very little life unmediated by the book. Allan Quatermain describes his sexualized Africa not as he lives it, but as he remembers it. Chris lays out battle plans from his notebook. Whether on islands or in empires, the tools of literacy are always there, and in the end what makes the colonist or conqueror is his ability to read and write. Remember Benjamin Franklin: “You must spread all upon Paper.”
Adventure is the boy’s own paper, sheets on which he reads, or comes to write, a life. And if the loci of adventures shift from island sovereignties to continents, then so do books themselves. Robinson Crusoe evokes a notion of the book as shipwreck: we return from our island to recover passages or portions that we need. We build houses of our reading memory out of the shards of books, beached on the shores of our imagination. By the late nineteenth century, books are continents. They loom before us, much like Haggard’s Africa, daring our conquest. The heroes of their stories model forms of verbal action, and the real heroes of these massive tales are those who read them—for simply completing King Solomon’s Mines or With Buller in Natal is something of a heroic enterprise. The books themselves take on the massivity of land. Look at the late Victorian and Edwardian covers, with their embossed fronts, their engraved lettering, their colored leather stretched over the binding boards. These are hefty volumes, made of leather, gold, and heavy paper, with marbled boards and gilt edges. The boy’s book is now a treasure in itself.