Origins of the adventure story - British Empire builders and adventurers - Shaping boyhood - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


26. Shaping boyhood


British Empire builders and adventurers


Dennis Butts


Origins of the adventure story


Romances of the Middle Ages, such as the tales of Robin Hood and the story of Bevis of Hampton, seem to have been the earliest forms of adventure stories British children enjoyed. Richard Baxter, the famous seventeenth-century preacher, lamented his youth ‘bewitched with a love of romances, fables and old tales’ (Reliquiae Baxterianae, quoted in Ure 1956: 10), and in 1709 Richard Steele described his eight-year-old godson’s acquaintance with ‘Guy of Warwick’, whose brave deeds included killing a dragon and repelling Danish invaders.

As more children learned to read, their appetite for adventure stories grew, and as well as devouring the romances circulated in chapbooks, they turned to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Defoe’s novel may have been intended originally as a tale about Christian Providence, and Swift’s work as a political satire, but both were often read by children as exciting stories about shipwrecks and adventures at sea. Many readers have seen Crusoe’s development of his desert island, particularly with the help of his black servant Man Friday, as a parable of the way British colonisation worked, and thus connected the ideology of imperialism with the adventure story almost from its beginnings. Defoe’s work was so popular that it inspired a whole series of imitations throughout Europe, which were called ‘Robinsonnades’, including versions edited specifically for children. A Swiss pastor, Johann Wyss (1743-1818), produced the most famous adventure story for children modelled upon Robinson Crusoe in The Swiss Family Robinson, first translated into English in 1814.

In 1814 Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) produced his first historical romance, Waverley, in which he showed that exciting adventures need not only be set on desert islands, but could be just as thrilling when set in the past. Many of his novels were enthusiastically read by children, and his success helped to establish the form of the historical novel. James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), the American novelist, followed Scott’s example in such stories as The Pioneers (1823), and in writing about the adventures of his fellow Americans struggling against treacherous foes and the natural elements, he discovered the value of placing the action of his stories on the exotic frontiers of North America.

Defoe, Scott and Cooper did not write specifically for children, but their books were enjoyed by them, and other writers were eager to provide similar stories designed for young readers. Agnes Strickland’s The Rival Crusoes, or the Shipwreck (1826) is a typical example of a Robinsonnade. Mrs Hofland’s The Stolen Boy of 1830, about the adventures of a young boy who is captured by Red Indians in Texas, illustrates the growth of stories with exotic backgrounds; and Mrs J. B. Webb’s Naomi, or the Last Days of Jerusalem (1841) reveals the growing interest in historical tales.

This appetite for adventure stories coincided with Britain’s emergence from the Napoleonic Wars as a great military and naval power, with an expanding empire and a growing enthusiasm for foreign enterprises. The exploits of Clive in India and of Wolfe in Canada had whetted boys’ thirst for adventure in the late eighteenth century, and the more recent triumphs of Nelson and the Duke of Wellington had raised patriotic feeling to great heights. The rise in popularity and to some extent the contents and form of adventure stories may be seen as an expression of this feeling and of the growth of popular interest in the British Empire which rapidly expanded in the nineteenth century.

Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) played the decisive role in establishing the popularity and forms of the adventure story for children. After a distinguished career as a naval officer, he became the extremely popular author of such seafaring novels as The King’s Own (1830).

In response to a request from his own children to write a story like The Swiss Family Robinson, Marryat, who was annoyed by that book’s inaccuracies, produced Masterman Ready: or, the Wreck of the Pacific (1841-2), the story of a family who are wrecked on a desert island but protected by the wise advice of an old seafarer. Despite a tendency to moralise typical of the period, Marryat produced an interesting Robinsonnade, which can still surprise us with its broad-minded discussion of imperialism and its unexpectedly poignant ending. The book’s success encouraged Marryat to continue writing for children, and he produced a Cooper-like tale, The Settlers in Canada (1844), about the adventures of an immigrant family who settle near Lake Ontario, despite the threats of Red Indians and wild animals.

Then in 1847 Marryat published his best book, The Children of the New Forest, a historical novel about the adventures of the four Beverley children who are orphaned during the English Civil War. Marryat vividly describes how the children are taken into hiding in the New Forest by a poor forester who teaches them how to survive by hunting and farming, and evade capture by parliamentary troopers. Marryat’s story-telling is not without faults, but in his account of the children’s learning to survive on their own in the forest (rather like an inland Robinsonnade), the story of the maturing of Edward Beverley, the rather rash eldest teenager, and in his treatment of the historical situation with a picture of growing understanding and tolerance, Marryat produced a near masterpiece. With The Children of the New Forest, the first historical novel for children which has endured, and with his stories of shipwreck and of British settlers struggling to survive in Canada, Marryat laid down the foundations of the nineteenth-century adventure story for children.

Meanwhile the British Empire continued to expand. In 1815 it had hardly existed. Although the West Indies supplied Britain with sugar, Australia was regarded as little more than a convict station and on the African continent Cape Colony was the only part inhabited by white people, and they were mainly Dutch. Canada was largely unexplored, and New Zealand was inhabited by natives only. India was the one major possession overseas Britain cared about, although three-quarters of that was ruled by native princes and the rest by the East India Company.

But new forces were at work and during the nineteenth century Britain vastly extended its overseas territories, forming the New Zealand Colonisation Company, consolidating its control of India, and acquiring the whole of Burma and huge areas of Africa including Uganda, Nigeria and Zanzibar. The Empire over which Queen Victoria reigned in 1897 was four times greater than at her accession sixty years earlier.

Improvements in communications by railways, steamships and the electric telegraph, together with the availability of cheaper newspapers, made the British public more aware of affairs overseas, and newspaper reports from Special Correspondents such as W. H. Russell of The Times helped to sharpen the public consciousness of such events as the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu War and the Relief of Mafeking during the second Boer War.

The eighteenth-century explorations of Captain Cook and Mungo Park, the wanderings of Charles Waterton in South America, the dramatic encounter of Livingstone with Stanley in Africa in 1871, and the travels of such men as Sir Richard Burton, all intensified interest in adventures in exotic places. When the domestic economic situation seemed to offer only the grim alternatives of unemployment or dreary factory work, many began to look overseas. As well as searching for opportunities of trading with British colonies, hundreds of thousands of Britons emigrated to America, Australia, Canada and South Africa, because there was more scope for enterprise and even excitement there. In the process, links between Britain and its great Empire overseas were gradually extended and strengthened.

Many middle-class Victorian children, particularly boys, shared their parents’ interests in the Empire, expecting to work there when they left school, in commerce, the armed forces or as public servants. (Girls would expect to become the loyal companions and helpmates of their husbands according to the conventions of the age, of course.) The United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon was actually founded to help prepare boys to serve in such countries as India, and it is no coincidence that Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), ‘the poet of imperialism’, was a pupil there. Thus the British public’s interest in thrilling deeds in faraway places, normally within the hegemony of British imperialism, helped create a cultural climate in which boys and girls wanted to read adventure stories in which the heroes and (less often) the heroines were young people like themselves.

Like Captain Marryat, many of the writers who contributed to the proliferation of adventure stories from the middle of the nineteenth century had also enjoyed exciting lives before settling down to writing. Captain Mayne Reid (1818-83), after an adventurous life which included serving with distinction in the American War against Mexico, began to produce such stories as The Desert Home (1851). R. M. Ballantyne (1825-94), after years working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada, wrote a whole series of adventure stories, such as Snowflakes and Sunbeams: or the Young Fur Traders (1858) and his popular Robinsonnade, The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858). W. H. G. Kingston (1814-80), the third of Marryat’s mid-nineteenth-century successors, tended to specialise in sea stories, such as Peter the Whaler: His Early Life and Adventures in the Arctic Regions (1851). Many children, of course, continued to enjoy adventure stories written for adults such as Westward Ho!, an Elizabethan romance by Charles Kingsley (1819-75).

Kingston was succeeded as editor of the significantly named periodical The Union Jack: Tales for British Boys, a penny weekly devoted to adventure stories, by G. A. Henty (1832-1902), who became the most prolific writer of boys’ adventure stories in the last decades of the nineteenth century. A war correspondent who had travelled widely and covered most of the major conflicts in Europe from the Crimean to the Franco-Russian War as well as various colonial expeditions, Henty began writing full time for children when his poor health made strenuous travelling impossible. He was soon producing four books a year, ranging from historical works, such as With Clive in India: or the Beginnings of Empire (1884) to stories based upon recent or even contemporary events, such as The Dash for Khartoum: A Tale of the Nile Expedition (1892).

Henty was enormously popular, with sales of his books reaching 150,000 annually, according to his publisher Blackie. In view of this kind of success, it is not surprising that, by the end of the century, almost every publishing house in Britain was eagerly providing adventure stories for a young reading public which was growing in size not only because of the expansion of the public (that is, private) schools but also of the national state schools, after education had been made compulsory for all children by a Parliamentary Act of 1870.

Even the Religious Tract Society, originally founded to disseminate religious works, launched a weekly periodical, the Boy’s Own Paper, in 1879 to cater for a new generation of readers by serialising adventure stories by such writers as Ballantyne and Kingston. So popular was the magazine that within five years its circulation had reached a quarter of a million, rising over half a million within ten years.

Other periodical publishers followed suit. In the years between 1855 and 1901 over a hundred secular magazines for boys were published in Britain, the majority after the 1870 Education Act - Young Folks in 1871, Young England in 1880, Chums in 1892 and The Captain in 1899, to name some of the most famous examples. Most of them attracted the major writers of adventure stories at this time, including Ballantyne, Kingston and Stevenson. They were well produced on good-quality paper, and copiously illustrated.

Alongside these periodicals produced by the respectable, middle-class publishers, however, there also existed penny magazines of a more sensationalist character. Edwin J. Brett (1828-95) dominated this field with his Boys of England launched in 1867, featuring the boisterous adventures of Jack Harkaway, but Brett had notable rivals in the brothers George and William Emmett with melodramatic serials in their periodical Sons of Britannia, launched in 1876.

In the 1890s Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922), started a series of weekly periodicals selling at only one halfpenny each, such as The Halfpenny Marvel in 1893, The Union Jack (reviving Henty’s old title) in 1894 and Pluck, also 1894. The Halfpenny Marvel specialised in stories about buried treasure and adventures at sea, while the Union Jack concentrated more on stories about how Britain obtained her colonies. Pluck also contained tales of daring deeds in imperial settings, and serials based upon such topics as General Gordon and the Siege of Khartoum. The weekly fiction found in Pluck and The Union Jack, with their stories about youthful heroes in romantic parts of the British Empire, extended and reinforced familiarity with the form and imperialistic values of the adventure genre which had developed from the middle of the century. ‘Dr Jim of South Africa’, for example, which appeared in Pluck in 1896, actually featured Dr Jameson, the instigator of the notorious Jameson Raid into the Transvaal in 1895, in a plot similar to many boys’ adventure stories of the previous forty years.