The genre - 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


The genre


What were the characteristics of the British boys’ adventure story as it developed in the nineteenth century? How were they shaped by individual writers, such as Stevenson, and how were they developed in the twentieth century?

The most important feature of the genre is its combination of the extraordinary and the probable, for if the events in a story are too mundane they fail to excite, but a sequence of completely extraordinary events fails to be credible. Whether an adventure story deals with shipwrecks or heroic battles, the events have to seem to arise naturally from the context of the story to retain the young reader’s confidence. The remarkableadventures that H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925) describes in King Solomon’s Mines (1885) are carefully led up to, step by step, the illusion of reality being created by the narrator’s low-key introduction of himself, his quasi-scholarly footnotes about the African vegetation and wildlife, and his modest unwillingness to make any dramatic claims about his own part in the treasure hunt. The unfolding of more and more extraordinary events is done so gradually and skilfully as to suspend (or at least reduce) the reader’s sense of disbelief.

This sense of the probable is usually achieved by choosing as hero a normal and identifiable teenage boy, generally from a respectable but not particularly wealthy home. Peter Lefroy, the fifteen-year-old son of a clergyman in Kingston’s Peter the Whaler, is a typical example. Neither particularly clever nor stupid, the hero has plenty of common sense and that spirit often called ‘pluck’. Under the influence of evangelism, the heroes of the early books are apt to be rather pious at times (in the novels of Marryat and Ballantyne, for example), but, though the hero is always keen to do what is right, by the beginning of the twentieth century he is often portrayed in more secular and fiercely nationalistic terms, like Yorke Harberton in Henty’s With Roberts to Pretoria (1902), who is introduced as


a good specimen of the class by which Britain has been built up, her colonies formed and her battlefields won - a class in point of energy, fearlessness, the spirit of adventure, and a readiness to face and overcome all difficulties, unmatched in the world.


The beginning of the story usually depicts the young hero in a minor crisis which reveals an early glimpse of his pluck. Charley Kennedy demonstrates his spirit with a display of horse-breaking in Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders and David Balfour shows his courage in dealing with his Uncle Ebenezer at the beginning of Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886).

Usually as the result of a domestic crisis, sometimes because of the death of a parent or a decline in the family fortunes, the hero leaves home and undertakes a long and hazardous journey - to seek other relations, or to repair his fortunes elsewhere. The whole family emigrate after losing their estate in Marryat’s The Settlers in Canada, but it is also common for the hero to be an orphan as in G. M. Fenn’s Nat the Naturalist (1883), or to lose his father early in the story, as Dick Varley does in Ballantyne’s The Dog Crusoe (1861).

The settings of adventure stories are usually unfamiliar and often exotic. Those in Britain focus on out-of-the-way places such as the New Forest or the Scottish Highlands, but normally the hero’s journey takes him even further, sometimes overseas to European wars, but more frequently to the desert or bush of Africa, the snowy wastes of Canada or the jungles of South America. These unusual and dangerous locations, as well as adding drama to the story, often act in a quasi-symbolical way to reinforce the sense of moral obstacles which the young hero struggles to overcome.

The hero often acquires a faithful companion during the journey, sometimes in the shape of a surrogate father, such as the old servant Jacob Armitage in Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest, or sometimes a friendly native, following the precedent of Man Friday, who can speak the language and knows the local customs, such as Makarooroo in Ballantyne’s The Gorilla Hunters (1861). Although average in many ways, the hero often possesses some special asset which proves invaluable on his journey. Henty’s heroes often have a remarkable facility for acquiring foreign languages as well as an extraordinary aptitude for disguise, while Captain Good’s possession of false teeth and an Almanack prove to be unexpectedly useful physical assets in King Solomon’s Mines.

As the hero continues his journey, all kinds of complications and difficulties threaten the quest - shipwreck, attacks by cannibals, treachery. In Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain (1887), for instance, the hero canoes down a dangerous river, rescues a missionary’s daughter from kidnappers, is swept under a volcanic rock, and survives an attack of giant crabs before finally becoming engulfed in a civil war. The story thus rises by a series of minor crises to a great climax, which is often a ferocious battle against bloodthirsty antagonists.

Normally the hero survives, and the end of the story sees him rewarded with wealth and honour. This is sometimes more than the conventional ‘happy ending’, however, as if the author, having shown how the hero has proved himself through enduring various trials on his quest, and discovered his real worth, deserves symbolic proof of this. The young hero generally discovers the truth about his family, and so his real identity, in such stories as Kingston’s In the Eastern Seas (1871) and Stevenson’s Kidnapped. More usually, however, the hero returns home laden with great wealth to be warmly greeted by his family, and sometimes to marry.

Religious didacticism is not so apparent in adventure stories produced in the second half of the nineteenth century as in earlier books. But their authors took their responsibilities seriously, guiding their young readers towards such virtues as loyalty, pluck and truthfulness, nearly always within the ideological framework of Victorian laissez-faire capitalism, a hierarchical view of society and strict gender divisions. Girls occasionally play a minor role in adventures, and there were even some women writers of adventure stories, such as Anne Bowman (1801-90). (Later writers such as Bessie Marchant (1862-1941) actually showed girls enjoying adventures.) But the nineteenth-century genre was dominated by male values.

One of the strongest features of the genre was its belief in the rightfulness of British territorial possessions overseas, and the assumption that the British Empire was an unrivalled instrument for harmony and justice. Occasionally a writer such as Marryat discussed the system, but most nineteenth-century writers of adventure stories accepted the values of British imperialism quite uncritically. G. A. Henty was not afraid to criticise aspects of British policy in his stories, but it is always within an unquestioning acceptance of the legitimacy of British rule. Indeed, he often prefaced his tales with a letter addressed to his readers - ‘My Dear Lads’, he calls them - in which he drew attention to the heroic feats in the story which followed, and which helped to create the British Empire. The imperialist statesman Winston Churchill (perhaps deliberately?) echoed the title of one of Henty’s books A Roving Commission (1900) in the subtitle of his early autobiography My Early Life: A Roving Commission (1930), and he was also a great admirer of Rider Haggard’s stories.

Thus many of these stories describe the beginnings and extension of the British Empire. The island adventures of Robinson Crusoe provided an early opportunity to project a detailed fable of colonialism, as Defoe depicted a wild and savage land taken over and developed by a European settler. Later writers went on to narrate the adventures of explorers and pioneers, often combining Christianity with commerce, and gradually economic activities began to be discussed too, as heroes travel, for example, to India or Africa to make their fortunes, and then retire to an English country home. Both Marryat and Henty wrote about settlers in Canada and Africa, while traders and businessmen, all under the aegis of British rule, also appear in the stories of Ballantyne, Henty and Rider Haggard. Britain’s imperial history became a literary romance.

In their use of formulaic plots and stereotypical characters, adventure stories owed a great deal to the structure of traditional folk and fairy tales. Propp has shown how Russian folk tales contain many features also found in western European stories, such as ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ and the English ‘Dick Whittington’, in which a young hero, often with the help of a companion and a magical gift such as a ring, leaves home to perform some great feat before returning triumphant to his family. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell argues that such tales, with their mixture of realism and the extraordinary, their narrative of the hero’s journey as quest, and their happy ending, also have much in common with the myths of Greece and other ancient cultures; and he suggests that they remain powerful because they express the unconscious fears and desires which lie beneath the surface of much conscious behaviour. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim also vigorously defends the psychological value of folk and fairy tales, particularly for young people.

Despite their surface realism, many nineteenth-century adventure stories are based upon the pattern of folk tales, transformed by Victorian ideologies and reflecting contemporary attitudes towards race and gender, but popular because they satisfied some of the same human and psychological needs as traditional tales. The use of a narrative structure which depends upon a familiar pattern also has other advantages: the young readers may actually be encouraged in their reading of narrative as they recognise familiar patterns of story-telling, and also obtain aesthetic satisfaction in learning to appreciate the ways different writers vary the expected formula or use it to express a personal vision.

The finest writer within the tradition of the Victorian adventure story was Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), and the structure of the folk tale is clearly visible behind many of his books. In both Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped Stevenson portrays heroes who are young boys when their fathers die. In Treasure Island Jim goes off on a voyage in search of buried treasure, and in Kidnapped David leaves home in search of his surviving relations. Both heroes take ships, visit remote islands and return triumphantly. The story pattern is a familiar one.

But Stevenson uses and develops these formulaic elements with imagination and seriousness. He introduces considerable variety into his heroes’ journeys, describing the way an apparently loyal crew reveal themselves as mutinous pirates in Treasure Island, and transforming David Balfour’s role from that of hunter into that of victim in Kidnapped. Indeed, both stories are full of imaginative touches with an enduring resonance - the Black Spot, Jim’s visit to the apple-barrel, David’s climb up the stair tower, and his miseries on the isle of Earraid, among many.

Less explicitly interested in imperialism in his tales than his contemporaries, Stevenson achieved the most radical variation in the adventure-story formula, however, in his treatment of the faithful companions and the predictable villains. Most strikingly in the relationships between Jim and Long John Silver in Treasure Island, and David and Allan Breck Stewart in Kidnapped, Stevenson exploits the familiar elements to portray the ambiguities of human behaviour. For Silver is the leader of the pirates and ostensibly the villain of Treasure Island; but he consistently looks after Jim Hawkins, and they become, in a wonderful stroke of irony, like father and son. Conversely David dislikes Allan’s flamboyant Jacobite values in Kidnapped, and they bitterly quarrel in the flight across the heather, but when they draw swords on each other they are forced to recognise their fundamental brotherhood. Stevenson was preoccupied with the contradictions and complexities of human behaviour, seeing it constantly changing, and therefore all the more difficult to make judgements about. He is constantly challenging the reader’s response and powers of moral assessment. Who is really good or bad, he asks the reader. Which is better - cool, rigid principles or erratic principles and genuine love? Stevenson’s work demonstrated how the traditional structure of the adventure story could be a magnificent instrument for raising serious issues.

So powerful was the tradition created by Captain Marryat and his successors that it continued through the last years of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, with such writers as Captain F. S. Brereton (1872-1957) and ‘Herbert Strang’, the pseudonym of the collaborators George Herbert Ely (1866-1958) and James L’Estrange (1867-1947), who produced such works as With Drake on the Spanish Main (1907).

The only work of this period which seems to have endured, however, is Moonfleet (1898) by J. Meade Falkner (1858-1932), a tale of smugglers and treachery in eighteenth- century England, more reminiscent of Stevenson than the imperialistic writers.

New developments were discernible. Richard Jefferies (1848-87), with Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882), the account of a boy’s exploits exploring and sailing near his father’s farm, successfully demonstrated how a realistic domestic setting was no obstacle to a tale of engrossing adventures. Thomas Hardy’s one children’s book, Our Exploits at West Poley (serialised in America 1892-3), about some teenage boys’ exploration of a cave in the Mendips, also portrayed realistic adventures combined with humour at a time when tales of imperial heroics dominated the scene.

British boys’ adventure stories were read throughout the Empire, so that it is not surprising that Canada should publish such a book as Catharine Parr Traill’s Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains in 1852, or that conflicts in New Zealand should inspire such books as Mona Tracy’s Rifle and Tomahawk: A Stirring Tale of the Te Kooti Rebellion in 1927.

A different kind of boys’ adventure story had long been popular in North America, however. Even the early didactic books of Jacob Abbott (1803-79) portrayed his young hero Rollo in realistic situations of danger, for example when he is caught in a storm while sailing to visit relations in Europe. That tradition was extended by ‘Oliver Optic’ (the pseudonym of W. T. Adams (1822-97)), whose story The Boat Club (1854), about two rival bands of rowers on a New England lake, became immensely popular. The Story of a Bad Boy (1868) by T. B. Aldrich (1836-1907) gave the emerging genre a more humorous flavour, helping to prepare the way for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), by ‘Mark Twain’ (the pseudonym of S. L. Clemens (1835-1910)). Despite its comic beginning, this famous book’s power depends enormously upon such traditional adventure-story ingredients as Tom and Huck’s involvement with a murder and their subsequent discovery of a treasure chest.

Many Americans were deeply influenced by the contents and form of British adventure stories. Howard Pyle (1853-1911), for example, produced The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood in 1883 and his first historical novel Otto of the Silver Hand in 1888; and later works such as Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain (1943) and Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) show the continuation of that tradition, while Cynthia Voight’s Homecoming of 1981 adopts the formula of the epic journey to a contemporary urban setting. The success of ‘dime novels’, works of cheap, sensationalist American fiction which began to appear in the 1860s, also contributed to the enduring popularity of tales of frontier and pioneering life with heroes like Buffalo Bill, although perhaps only E. S. Ellis (1840-1916), with such books as The Boy Hunters of Kentucky (1889) and On the Trail of the Moose (1894), seems to have made much impact on British readers.

British adventure stories were also known through translations into most European languages, including Germany which in Joachim Campe produced its own Robinsonnade with Robinson der Jungere in 1779-80, while Karl May (1842-1912) became an extremely popular author of Cooper-like adventures. Switzerland produced its own great Robinsonnade with J. D. Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson of 1812-13, while France, with such authors as Alexandre Dumas (1802-70) and Jules Verne (1828-1905), though not deriving directly from the British tradition, certainly contributed to the rise of juvenile adventure stories. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoi (1828-1910), who wrote a number of tales for children, produced one remarkable adventure story for the young, A Captive in the Caucasus, in 1872.

Many other countries and cultures have produced, of course, their own tales of adventure for many years, not belonging to any British tradition but springing more often from their own cultural and oral roots, such as the collection of tales known as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Although not originally intended for children, perhaps, they have often been much enjoyed by them, particularly in versions adapted for them by such writers as Andrew Lang.