The Heroic as “Gift” on the Victorian and Edwardian Book Market


Barbara Korte

A concern with the heroic has been identified as a defining trait of Victorian culture, but its manifestations have been studied neither in detail nor systematically. As far as print culture is concerned, the focus of research has been on literature, and specifically literature in the more high-cultural and canonised corner of the literary field. With the exception of imperial adventure novels, popular literature has rarely been discussed. Even less attention has been paid to the wider field of the popular print market, although the heroic had a particularly prominent place in this field of cultural production and reached great numbers of readers in all parts of Victorian society. This collection is dedicated to a popular book genre that had a special affinity to the heroic. “Gift books” – also referred to as “reward books”, “prize books” or “presentation books” – were produced in great numbers from early Victorian times to the First World War, and quite frequently as part of an entire series.1 They were an important medium for disseminating ideas about the heroic in Victorian society, and they perpetuated Victorian concepts of the heroic into the twentieth century. The “hero books” compiled here are collections of narratives about heroes and heroic deeds. Most of them were produced as gift books in the narrow sense: books that were meant to be given as presents, usually to young readers. But hero books very similar to those targeted at children – in terms of content but also material appearance (binding, cover and inside illustrations) and marketing – were also produced for adult readers. And while these readers might not have received them as actual presents or rewards, they were meant to take them as cultural gifts in the sense outlined in section 2 below.

0. Introduction
1. Victorians and the Exemplary Heroic
2. The Book as Gift
3. Hero Books and the Heroic Imaginary
4. The Bibliography and Text Collection

  1. The collection is a spin-off of the research project: “The Heroic in British Periodicals between 1850 and 1900: Competing Semantics and Modes of Presentation,<>. Periodicals had many intersections with the contemporary book market, not only in terms of ownership and publishing. Gift books were advertised and reviewed in periodicals, and they were sometimes compiled from material originally published in magazines.