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

2. The Book as Gift

Gift books were a clearly defined sector of the Victorian and Edwardian juvenile book markets.1 They were produced across the entire price range and available in cheap (but sturdy) as well as expensive bindings.2 They were affordable to libraries of “improving” institutions, and less affluent families could buy them at least on special occasions. They were advertised by their publishers as books suitable to be given as presents on special occasions such as Christmas,3 as rewards in school and Sunday school, or as prizes at competitions. Such advertisements have been preserved in periodicals and at the end of many books, for instance those deposited in the British Library (while they are often deleted from digitised editions). For example, the advertisement section in Hazard and Heroism (1904) [1.2.30] includes a comprehensive list under the heading “Chambers’s Books Suitable for Prizes and Presentations”. Plates and personal inscriptions in many surviving books prove that they were indeed awarded as gifts.4 While novels, annual editions of magazines or poetry anthologies were also given as presents or rewards, the typical gift book was the collection of short narratives either newly written or compiled from other sources.

Gift books, and most of the “hero books” compiled in this collection, were typically addressed to young readers. But the same type of collection was offered to adult readers deemed in special educational and inspirational need, notably readers from the working classes. In some cases young and older readerships overlapped. The preface to Charlotte Yonge’s Book of Golden Deeds (1864) [1.2.7] refers to boys as the book’s main intended audience but expresses the hope that its stories might also “be found useful for short readings to the intelligent, though uneducated classes”.

The “hero books” in this collection were meant to provide pleasure (even cheap ones often offered the extra visual pleasure of illustrations), but even the most entertaining ones were published with educational or inspirational intent: They aimed to initiate their readers into, or assure them of, dominant value systems and ideals of their society. However, in contrast to school readers (some of which also had an explicit heroic theme5), gift books were meant to be read privately in the domestic setting (to which some frame narratives also explicitly refer; see nos. 1.2.2 and 1.1.2). In contrast to school books and more ephemeral products of the print market, they were meant to stay on their readers’ shelves as reservoirs or treasuries to which they might later wish to return.6 They belong in the category which Charlotte Mary Yonge, in What Books to Lend and What to Give (1887), recommends as “improving books” that are “specially suited for prizes, as they will be read again in after life” (88).

Considering the special social and cultural value which these books were meant to have, the term “gift book” seems very appropriate if one understands “gift” not as a mere present but in the more ritualistic sense which the anthropologist Marcel Mauss described for “archaic societies” in his essay “The Gift” (originally published in 1925). Victorian gift books were presented with an expectation of reciprocity: Their readers were called upon not only to enjoy them, but to return the “gift” by absorbing the values they transported and following them in their day-to-day lives. That many gift books were dedicated to the heroic, and that many hero books were published as gift books, is therefore not surprising. As Cubitt and Warren write, heroes reflect “the values and ideologies of the societies in which they are produced”, and heroic reputations are “products of the imaginative labour through which societies and groups define and articulate their values and assumptions, and through which individuals within those societies or groups establish their participation in larger social or cultural identities.” (3) Cubitt and Warren define the hero as “any man or woman whose existence […] is endowed by others, not just with a high degree of fame and honour, but with a special allocation of imputed meaning and symbolic significance – that not only raises them above others in public esteem but makes them the object of some kind of collective emotional investment.” (ibid.) Such investment was what the books in this collection were supposed to promote, as many of their prefaces and introductory chapters explicitly reveal. They emphasise that heroes are “well worthy of admiration and imitation” [no. 1.2.2] and that “they stimulate others into imitation” [no. 1.2.17].

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. On the development of this book genre, see Faxon (1973 [1912]).
  2. 1s6d was the price for many books in the lower segment during the nineteenth century.
  3. Several items in the collection refer explicitly to Christmas, either in the dating of their prefaces or in frame stories (e.g., Keary, Heroes of Asgard, no. 1.1.2).
  4. See the British Library catalogue’s note for John G. Edgar’s The Heroes of England on an 1887 edition of the book: Ownership: Prize book presented to John H. C. Evelyn for industry and good conduct. Castlemount School, Dover. July 31, 1889.
  5. See, for example, “The Heroic Readers”, published by Jarrold and Son (1897); they printed stories to be read, and poems to be learnt by heart and recited, in class.
  6. It is for this reason that most hero books, while sometimes including recent examples of heroic behaviour, are not topical in the narrow sense. Books that responded immediately to recent events, such as George Ryan’s Our Heroes of the Crimea: Being Biographical Sketches of our Military Officers, from the General Commanding-in-Chief to the Subaltern (London: Routledge & Co., 1855), seem to be an exception rather than the rule.