Timeworn yet durable, the cloth-bound editions of By Sheer Pluck and With Roberts in Pretoria in my university library carry strange hieroglyphics on their flyleaf: “Upper III III div B6 dormitory”, “Tunbridge Wells, dormitory, Upper III.” The inscriptions suggest shared use, probably in the boys-only sleeping area of a private school. But neither of these novels by the prolific George Alfred Henty carries a copyright date, although in one of them “1902 edition?” has been scrawled in pencil by an inquisitive librarian. Perhaps dating was thought to be immaterial by the publishers, Blackie and Sons, for an empire on which the sun never set.
1918 is popularly taken to have sounded the death-knell for such innocent tales of “boy’s own” adventure. In the Great War’s aftermath, its traumatized subaltern elite, including Graves and Sassoon, published eloquent, if elegiac “goodbyes-to-all that” to an Edwardian world beyond resurrection. Lytton Strachey had already elegantly twisted the first screw in the coffin of Victorian idealism. Successive generations of scholars have since conducted, to their own satisfaction, the burial rites of an imperialist worldview that exploited indigenous peoples, marginalized the feminine and excluded the proletarian. Yet books in a similar vein by Ballantyne, Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Kipling and Buchan, however ideologically scarlet their sins, have remained continuously in print – and read. The “boy’s own” corpse refuses to die.
It may be helpful at this point to explain my growing interest in these ripping yarns, now nourished by access to the special collection of a national research centre for children’s literature. Several years ago, I was commissioned to produce the introductory notes for a CD of classic children’s songs, ranging from Edward Lear to Spike Milligan. Trawling through various biographies, I was struck by how many authors confounded the stereotype of Victorian paterfamilias: taciturn, unfeeling, non-committal. Instead, the pages revealed men who had never lost a childlike receptiveness to the physical world and venerated this capacity in the young, even their sons. At the same time I had been intrigued by the craze for Harry Potter, a series written by a woman masquerading under the non-committal initials of a man. Here was a brand that not only got boys reading, but gave girls (and grown-ups too, through crossover marketing) a participatory stake in a highly traditional genre. It was as if the imposing gates to a magical-realist Greyfriars had finally been thrown permanently open.
If it is true, as research supervisors suggest, that at the centre of any self-respecting thesis proposal there must be an intellectual puzzle, mine crystallizes around the person and writing of Rudyard Kipling. When I studied English Literature in the 1980s as an undergraduate, Kipling was not on the menu. The anti-imperialist critiques of his contemporary Conrad, disguised as maritime adventure, better suited the modernist palate. So encountering the elegy for a dead son, My Boy Jack, in a delicate musical setting placed the writer of If in a new light. Leafing through selected letters to his children, O Beloved Kids, to find Rudyard commiserating with the singular indignity of being set paternal verse as lines during a detention, producing funny and skilful drawings, and using slang only served to increased my determination to reevaluate his work, particularly the short stories – not a form that has ever endeared itself to the British.
At the point at which Kipling was appearing to be more subtle and elliptical than his posthumous reputation allowed, a revelation confirmed by close reading of his fiction, fate took a hand. Daniel Radcliffe, the Harry Potter of the film franchise, grew old enough to be cast in the TV film, My Boy Jack, as John Kipling, who disappeared in a landscape of destroyed woodland, scrub and chalk workings during close-quarter skirmishing with German troops at Loos in 1915. The boy sorcerer had morphed into the boy soldier, for whom no amount of wish-fulfilling magic could have engineered a happy ending.
Although clearly a coming-of-age vehicle for Radcliffe, My Boy Jack also releases Kipling from the arch-imperialist caricature. Instead, he is presented as a conflicted father, bound by a sense of duty yet watching anxiously as the nineteen tests of manhood listed in his most famous poem are forced prematurely on his son. The screenplay does not balance the scales against him. We know that Kipling’s gift for rhetoric has created an ethos of personal valour that is obsolescent in the modern war machine. But we know that he knows it, even when string-pulling through the same General Roberts of Boer War fame to have his son admitted to the Irish Guards.
There is a sense in which (behind the academic jargon) my research title, Ripping Yarns: The Breaking of Masculine Codes in “Boys’ Own” Adventure Fiction, is both an elegy and a reevaluation. It is an investigation into this now dormant impulse for gallantry that can only be stirred through contact with tales of masculine adventure. The Boy’s Own Paper, established by The Religious Tract Society in 1879, from which the term derives, is testament to the belief that fiction could be both enjoyable and ennobling. The repetitive tales set in idealized public schools rehearse tests of character in the classroom, on the sports-field, within houses of residence and at Prize Day.
The last of these, the competitive examination, appears to me the social innovation creating the Victorian fixation with character formation. In fact, perhaps the worst trial that can befall a boy is to be gifted, conscientious, and suspected of stealing an examination paper. He will be sent to Coventry by all his classmates. His teachers will suspect the worst. His close friends will doubt him. Then at the last minute the school wastrel will be discovered to be the culprit, and the hero’s exploits in prize-winning will be exonerated. Former good relations will be restored and he will leave the school for the University and a successful career as a lawyer, having learned to treat those two imposters just the same.
In such a newly competitive world, it is little wonder that so many romances set in public schools and beyond turn on a scriptural crux to be interpreted, a Greek or Latin Vulgus to be translated, a treasure chart to be oriented, a genealogy to be read, a track to be scouted or a code to be deciphered. Generally the boy most successful in reading his surroundings is depicted as becoming the most integrated man, a Success-in-Life. The meanings to be deduced shift over time and vary by author: Christian, scientific, Imperialist or merely sporting and dependent on the ethic of playing the game. But breaking the code by correct reading involves the same act of masculine initiation all the same.
Taste is notoriously fickle, but coinciding with Harry Potter, The Dangerous Book for Boys signaled a revival of an Edwardian perception; the realization that in spite of the cultural cringe of toggles, knots, camping and the outdoors, some vital spark in the emotional development of boys needed rekindling. The catalogue of “dangerous” things is anodyne compared to its Victorian counterpart where a spot of taxidermy using arsenical soap was the order of the day. However, the Iggulden brothers’ book might just about be dismissed as skilful nostalgia-marketing directed at fathers, not sons.
But the beguilingly Potter-like demeanour of Gareth Malone when he visits Peartree Mead School in Essex and insists that boys learn differently from girls, and will only catch up if separately taught, is more difficult to dismiss. In the Extraordinary School, he quotes recent “experts” as claiming that boys learn best through fun, when there is competition (innate in every boy) and a sense of risk. In fact his extroverted learning games only seem to start working when dads are arm-twisted into attending a school camp and reading ghost stories by firelight to their sons. Malone then confesses to camera that the marked improvement in the boys’ reading performance has finally convinced him that the “dangerous stuff” does really work.
But if a rebalancing were to take place in the treatment of boys in education, this need not necessarily exclude girls. I have been intrigued to discover how many female devotees of the boys’ only genre there are; the daughters who were encouraged to read ripping yarns by their fathers, the adolescents who did so to discover what boys are like. Buchan appears to be particularly appealing. A feisty conference organizer admitted that reading him as a teenager had encouraged her to believe that women could reach for the sky, like men.
In the schools and universities of today, there is little need to tell young women about the glittering prizes. However, lost boys come in many different forms. We can do nothing now about that lost generation of young men whose loved ones received, by a fearful symmetry, a letter from the front recording their death. However, like folk tales, yarns filled with masculine risk and adventure carry deep meanings that unlock courage and resolve in boy’s hearts. Paradoxically, it may be dangerous for us simply to discount the stories that proved fatal to that generation of Henty readers.