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

3. Hero Books and the Heroic Imaginary

While the books in this collection have a common bias towards exemplary heroes and heroism and display an overall stability in the values with which the heroic was associated, they also illustrate the wide range, and a certain dynamic, of ideas about the heroic and the figures in whom they were embodied during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Variation is, first of all, explained by the fact that the Victorian imagination of the heroic, like the Edwardian that perpetuated it, drew from many sources: mythology and history as well as their own present, which struck the author Hodder [no. 1.2.17] as having “produced more great men than any in the world’s history”. Many hero books present heroic figures from several periods, sometimes even from antiquity to the present. This suggests a universal validity of the heroic and supports the sense that the present is rooted in, and authorised by, a heroic memory that promises stability and orientation in times of change. As Charles Kingsley notes in The Heroes [no. 1.1.1], his narratives for children about the heroes of classical antiquity, such stories continued to resonate in “this modern world in which we now live”.

Even if filtered through the criterion of exemplarity, the panorama of heroic figures and deeds in hero books is impressive. That certain famous exemplars are cited again and again lends them a special prominence in the Victorian and Edwardian heroic universe: the Chevalier Bayard and Sir Philip Sidney as representatives of chivalric behaviour; heroes of the sea (a special interest in Britain as an island nation) from Drake and Raleigh to Nelson and Collingwood; military leaders from the Duke of Marlborough to the Duke of Wellington and, more recently, Sir Henry Havelock; discoverers and explorers from Elizabethan days to Sir John Franklin and Robert Edmund Peary. By highlighting such men, the gift books affirmed and nourished an understanding of the heroic in terms of masculine prowess and agency. At the same time, however, and sometimes within one and the same book, such prototypical notions were also transcended, qualified and complemented. In particular, there was a notable esteem for “moral heroism” that could be exemplified by all members of Victorian society, irrespective of gender or class, and that could therefore permeate society as a whole. Hero books of the 1840s to 1860s, the period preceding high imperialism, show a marked tendency to profile moral against military heroism, declaring it superior to mere “physical courage”, “pluck” or “bravado” (see, for programmatic examples, the prefaces in nos. 1.2.2, 1.2.7 and 1.2.8. Later in the nineteenth century, when the spread of the Empire made military heroism more popular, moral heroism was incorporated into the conception of military behaviour (cf. Mangan). However, even if moral heroism was also displayed in the behaviour of soldiers, sailors and explorers, it was most essentially perceived, as many prefaces attest, as a heroism practicable in all walks of life and independent from gender, age or class. Women could be named as exemplars alongside men since this kind of heroism exhibits “a mental quality not depending on bodily strength”, as Balfour emphasises in her preface [no. 1.2.2]. Men and women were praised for the same qualities and actions, such as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, who were both engaged in prison reform. Apart from philanthropists and carer figures, representatives of moral heroism were found in the Christian mission (like Moffat, Livingstone), the promotion of liberty and justice (such as Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the slave trade) or areas like science and engineering which signified the progress of mankind and the advancement of civilisation (Linnaeus, Humphrey Davy, George Stephenson).

In light of such variety in personnel, the qualities associated with “exemplary” heroism were also mixed. Some hero books present military and civil heroism side by side [such as no. 1.2.16]. Frequently, the heroic qualities and values which a book was meant to illustrate were explicitly named in its preface or introductory chapter. Taken together, the prefatory materials of the books in this collection illustrate the wide range of qualities which the Victorians, and the Edwardians in their footsteps, defined as heroic: leadership, nobility of character, chivalry, self-reliance, magnanimity, a sense of honour, honesty, patriotism; bravery (or courage, daring, fortitude, valour, fearlessness, intrepidity, gallantry); a sense of duty, industry, perseverance, endurance, self-denial (or forgetfulness of self), a willingness to bear suffering; charity, benevolence, tenderness of heart, mercy, loving-kindness, attention to the common good. When and how these qualities could be performed was dependent on circumstance, social position and gender. In general, men of the upper and educated classes had the widest opportunities for displaying heroic qualities from military to moral heroism, while women and the working classes were predominantly noted for demonstrations of moral heroism.

Since moral heroism could bridge divisions of gender and class, the books in this collection attest an increasing attention to, and appreciation of, “everyday heroism” – a civil parallel to the appreciation for common soldiers that began to emerge in the aftermath of the Crimean War. Such books focus on real deeds performed by real people and so had a special potential to serve as models for their readers’ own behaviour. As John Price observes: “Books such as these, particularly the introductions and prefaces, provide valuable insights into how everyday heroism was viewed and the qualities that it was thought to exemplify” (25). The idea of heroism in everyday life widened the social scope of the heroic, and acts of everyday heroism became a staple of hero books during the final decades of the nineteenth century, especially in books addressed at working-class readers. Books targeted at adult readers of the working classes (which do not seem to have been produced until after the Education Reform of the 1870s) also reveal how carefully attributions of the heroic were channelled. In times when the working classes and their increasing political agency caused significant anxiety among the middle classes, hero books for the working classes (which were usually written or collected by members of the middle classes) show a strict limitation to selfless acts of civil heroism and seem to avoid any idea that heroism can involve transgressive violent behaviour. Lane’s preface to Heroes of Every-Day Life [no. 2.4] is telling in this respect when it expresses her belief or hope that working men “will not allow themselves to be misled by the passion and prejudice of the hour. […] We live in a transition period. […] But in all the changes that are surely coming (political and social), let us not forget one broad principle – namely, that it is ‘Righteousness’ (and righteousness alone) ‘that exalteth a nation’ [Proverbs 14:34].”

The threat of violent heroism was less likely to emanate from members of the female sex, but heroic behaviour of women was also negotiated with special care. The concept of moral heroism made it possible to incorporate women into contemporary definitions of the heroic. Accordingly, books promoting female heroism for female readers, and even occasional chapters in books intended for a male readership, were published even during the early Victorian decades. They acknowledged the humane moral heroism of an Elizabeth Fry or Florence Nightingale, but also the political heroism of Madame Roland, and even more physically courageous women such as Anna Garibaldi, who supported her husband with a weapon in her hand, or Grace Darling, the girl who had demonstrated significant pluck and strength when she rescued shipwrecked people off the coast of her home in Northumberland in 1838. At the same time, such acts of female valour were almost always marked as exceptional and as departures from feminine norms that were acceptable because they were absolutely necessary. Under more normal circumstances, the Tales of Female Heroism (1846) [no. 1.3.1] emphasise, the heroism of women manifests itself “rather in a feminine and domestic aspect than a brilliant one” and is distinguished by a “conscientious fulfilment of the quiet unobtrusive duties of every-day life”. This basic attitude did not change even when a feminist awareness established itself in the course of the second half of the nineteenth century and helped to boost the number of books published about heroic girls and women. Marie Trevelyan’s Brave Little Women (1888) [no. 1.3.5] voices regret that female heroism still went largely unnoticed, and the books about feminine heroism that Frank Mundell [nos. 1.3.6–11] published for the Sunday School Union during the 1890s tie this heroism to the “common daily life of women” and mark it as an expression of self-sacrifice and duty rather than a love of adventure. As late as 1900, Charles D. Michael’s Deeds of Daring in Every Day Life [no. 1.2.29] notes that women’s “comparative seclusion of home” narrowed down their opportunities of heroism and predestined them to a “heroism prompted by love.”

The books assembled in this collection were thus used not only to spread but also to channel contemporary ideas about the heroic: They ascertained that certain kinds of heroes and heroic qualities were still valued and should be sought after. They seem to counter the diagnosis of post-heroism one finds, for instance, in Carlyle. However, it is conspicuous how often even these affirmative books find it necessary to define the heroic explicitly and to discuss its qualities and social usefulness in their prefaces and introductory chapters, thus responding to times in which the heroic had come under critical scrutiny (see especially the prefatory material in nos. 1.2.2, 1.2.7, and 1.2.17). Such metaheroic reflections reveal the ideological positions behind Victorian and Edwardian concepts of the heroic. They also indicate an awareness of how ideas of the heroic became more democratised in the course of the period covered in this collection.

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