The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Boy Heroes  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The 1850s was a revolutionary decade in children’s literature. Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) was the first major novel to portray public school life accurately, down to the brutality of bullying, and to make the schoolboy the novel’s protagonist. But preceding Tom Brown’s Schooldays were the children’s books of the early 1850s, which began a revolution of their own.

In the first half of the nineteenth century children’s books were written for both boys and girls, and were intended to provide moral instruction. Story values such as style and enjoyment were of secondary importance, and stories which focused on adventure were thought to be risks for giving children the wrong ideas. At the same time, a number of popular adventure novels were being written for adults and consumed by children, including Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood, and Dumas père’s The Three Musketeers. The penny blood industry began in the mid-1830s and produced a large output of material which, like their upscale cousins, was intended and read by both adults and children.

The idea of combining the adventure plot with the moral instruction format was a logical development, and given the obvious (to writers and publishers at the time) fact that boys were more interested in stories of adventure than girls, it made sound business sense to write adventure novels specifically for boys.

The first two writers to do this, Thomas Mayne Reid (1818-1883) and W.H.G. Kingston (1814-1880), were not novice writers. Reid had published two novels, War Life (1850) and The Scalp Hunters (1851), about Captain Henry Haller’s adventures in Mexico and the American Southwest. W.H.G. Kingston was an established novelist, having written five adventure novels and historical romances. But those novels had been intended for adults rather than boys. Reid’s The Desert Home; or, The English Family Robinson (1851) and Kingston’s Peter the Whaler: His Early Life and Adventures in the Arctic Regions (1851) were written specifically for the juvenile male audience. Both were extremely successful, both gave their authors a new career path which both profited from, both inspired imitators, and both established the format for following books for boys: create a male protagonist of approximately the same age as the desired reader; place him in a variety of dangerous and thrilling circumstances in exotic foreign locations; provide a wish-fulfillment ending; and overlay moral instruction and educational material across the novel. Within a few years Robert M. Ballantyne (1825-1894) followed Reid and Kingston’s example, writing first Snowflakes and Snowbeams; or, the Young Fur Traders (1856) and then The Coral Island (1858). Ballantyne joined Reid and Kingston as the first generation of successful authors of adventure stories for boys.

The content of these novels was not especially original. Their motifs and settings, from the South Seas islands to Robin Hood to knights in armor to highwaymen, drew on the adventure novels and penny bloods which had preceded them. But the marketing and the intended audience were new.

In the 1870s the next wave of authors of books for boys appeared. With the passage of the Education Act in 1870 huge numbers of boys not previously exposed to school were given formal education and made literate. This created a much larger market for books for boys than had previously existed, and many authors, most notably G.A. Henty (1832-1902), George Manville Fenn (1831-1909), and Gordon Stables (circa 1840-1910), capitalized on this market. At the same time the story papers for boys were becoming successful. Although the most famous of them all, The Boy’s Own Paper, did not begin until 1879, it had several predecessors, including Boy’s Own Magazine, which began in 1855. These magazines were aimed at boys and published shorter versions of the “improving” adventure material which Reid, Kingston, et al. were writing at novel length. Writers in these magazines became famous, most notably including Talbot Baines Reed (see: School Stories). These magazines were a reaction to the penny dreadfuls, whose content appalled the middle- and upper-class moralists, a revulsion made worse by the appearance of the depraved dreadfuls of the 1860s and 1870s (see: Fanny White). With the eventual middle-class “moral panic” and ensuing crackdown (see: Wild Boys of London), the content of the penny dreadfuls became less coarse and the material in story papers more vigorous, and the story papers remained profitable and successful where the penny dreadfuls dwindled. By the 1890s the penny dreadfuls were gone and the story papers were creating characters who would last decades (see: The Nelson Lee Mysteries, The Sexton Blake Mysteries).

The nature of the protagonist in these stories changed in reaction to the market. The figure of Tom Brown, mischievous but essentially good-natured, gave way to crueler characters. While the goal of the story papers for boys remained instructional, writers like Bracebridge Hemyng saw a potentially profitable market for stories which put a male protagonist in situations more typical of the penny dreadful. Hemyng’s solution was to create a male protagonist who did not need improving but was a superior moral and physical specimen from the beginning. This protagonist would appear in stories with all the brutality and sexual overtones of the penny dreadfuls, and would display all the appetite for violence and cruelty of his penny dreadful peers, but his actions would be justified by the author. Hemyng’s Jack Harkaway (see: The Jack Harkaway Adventures) was the first of this type, but he was followed by numerous others, with names like Fred Fearnot, Jack Jaunty, Tom Wildrake, and so on. They initially drew on the School Story genre but soon became as independent (of adult supervision and control) and world-traveling as any adult protagonist. The tone of the stories improved and the maliciousness of the main characters softened only at the turn of the century.

For Further Research

Emer O’Sullivan, Historical Dictionary of Children’s Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.

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