1. Victorians and the Exemplary Heroic
Literary and cultural studies have asserted the importance of the heroic for the formation of identities and as a source of cultural meaning. It has been claimed that “[t]he very image of man is bound up with that of the hero” and that the hero is “the poetic projection of man as he unavoidably faces the meaning or lack of meaning of life” (Brombert, 12). Heroism is considered “a vital aspect of human behaviour and human endeavour”, and the idea of the hero has been found to be “at the centre of our cultural thinking” (Calder, ix). While such statements suggest a universal significance of the heroic, each society and culture produces its own inflections of heroic concepts and esteems certain types of heroes and heroic qualities more than others. Thomas Carlyle regretted in his lectures on Heroes and Hero Worship (1840; publ. 1841) that “in these days Hero-worship, the thing I call Hero-worship, professes to have gone out, and finally ceased” (Carlyle, 2). This is one of the most frequently cited opinions about the state of the Victorian heroic imagination, and while it expresses nostalgia and points to a certain scepticism towards the heroic, most Victorians would still have found the idea of the hero to be at the centre of their cultural thinking.
Walter F. Houghton (1957) counts the heroic among the defining features of the Victorian frame of mind and notes that the Victorians had “all the prerequisites for hero worship […] the enthusiastic temper, the conception of the superior being, the revival of Homeric mythology and medieval ballad, the identification of great art with the grand style, the popularity of Scott and Byron, and the living presence of Napoleonic soldiers and sailors.” (310) These prerequisites could thrive because the heroic appeared to respond to “some of the deepest needs and problems of the age” (ibid.). As Houghton’s chapter on “Hero Worship” (305–340) elaborates, heroic figures – whether real, mythical or fictional – seemed to offer ersatz belief and moral inspiration in times of religious doubt, orientation in an age of rapid transformation and an antidote to the perception that society was increasingly orientated towards “mediocrity” and the mass. It is not surprising, therefore, that Victorian culture honoured heroism in both military and civil forms (cf. Smith and Price) and acknowledged heroes in all material, performative and textual media of the time: paintings and monuments, the theatre, public lectures and, of course, the many products of the Victorian print market.
And yet Victorian ideas of the heroic were not unanimous. Many historians of Victorian culture have adopted a Carlylean “post-heroic” tone and diagnosed an attitude towards the heroic that was sceptical or at best ambivalent. George Levine writes that “heroism in these good old days had about it a very modern quality of desperation”, and that “[e]ven the most overtly heroic literature of the Victorians tends to produce, at best, problematic heroes” (48, 50). Ian Ousby, who discusses Carlyle and Thackeray, finds that the Victorians abandoned “much of the traditional concept of heroism”, if not “in a spirit of violent rebellion”: “They do not set out to destroy the old ideals with the confidence of men who have a ready-made alternative in their pockets. Rather, they begin from the realization that social and cultural changes are estranging them from an ideal that served their forefathers long and faithfully, and they present their solutions to the dilemma as acts of repair or adaptation. As they see it, they are not rejecting heroism but redefining it; instead of dropping the word from their vocabulary, they use it with an almost obsessive frequency that no other age in English culture has ever come close to rivalling. They make heroism over to their own needs, with mixed feelings of complacency and disappointment” (152f.).
How the heroic might be made over to suit new social realities was pointed out by Samuel Smiles. In Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance (1859, expanded 1866) and in his many biographies of engineers and men of business, Smiles offered a democratic interpretation of the heroic concept for an increasingly egalitarian society. The great men he called “heroes” were individuals who embodied Victorian middle-class values and virtues such as industry, a sense of duty, piety, endurance and perseverance, and they could come from all ranks of society: “Rising above the heads of the mass, there were always to be found a series of individuals distinguished beyond others, who commanded the public homage. […] Though only the generals’ names may be remembered in the history of any great campaign, it has been in a great measure through the individual valour and heroism of the privates that victories have been won. And life, too, is ‘a soldiers’ battle’, – men in the ranks having in all times been amongst the greatest of workers. Many are the lives of men unwritten, which have nevertheless as powerfully influenced civilization and progress as the more fortunate Great whose names are recorded in biography. Even the humblest person, who sets before his fellows an example of industry, sobriety, and upright honesty of purpose in life, has a present as well as a future influence upon the well-being of his country; for his life and character pass unconsciously into the lives of others, and propagate good example for all time to come” (Smiles, 20).
Carlyle saw heroes as a “natural elite of humanity” that was “there to be worshipped and followed rather than to be emulated” (Cubitt/Warren, 17). Smiles promoted heroes as role models that could be admired and imitated. His heroes rose above the head of the mass, but they were still close and similar to their fellow-men and so could be emulated by them, quite in the sense in which Cubitt and Warren understand exemplary heroes: “Exemplarity involves a perception not just of excellence, but also of relevance – and thus, in a sense, of similarity. Those whom we take as exemplars may be better than we are, but not than we might in principle become – not better in some absolute way that implies a difference of kind, but better relative to some common standard against which we hope to improve.” (11) And it is this concept of exemplary heroism that significantly defines the heroic in Victorian and Edwardian gift books.