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Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children’s Literature

Free Literature Essays


In the book Choosing Books for Children: A Commonsense Guide, Beatsy Hearne and Deborah Stevenson said: “Childhood is the time and children’s books are the place for powerful emotions, powerful language, powerful art… There is no room for cutesy books, dull books, or books that talk down. Children are not inferior. They may be small in stature but not in what they feel, think, listen, and see.” (5). This expression is highly related to the topic of imperialism in British children’s literature as it implies the idea that children’s literature has a great impact on children’s perception of the world and the society where they live. Children’s attitudes towards social and historical events and figures are formed under the influence of what they read, watch, and listen. In this perspective, choosing books that reflect the world in the most truthful and comprehensible way is the deal of great importance. In connection to this idea, I would like to investigate how the conception of empire and imperialism is reflected in classic British children’s literature. The conception of empire and imperialism stands a significant place in the history of the British society. British literature contains multiple examples of books that describe the life of the imperialistic society, colonization, as well as rise and fall of the Great British Empire. Children’s literature is not an exception. Such stories have a great impact on the development of a child’s imagination and make a significant contribution to his/her future social and political views and principles. Therefore, examining a historically-oriented section of the children’s literature has an important meaning to sociologists, educators, and psychologists as such books plant the first seed of national self-awareness in a child’s mind. I would like to conduct a research on the place that empire and imperialism stand in classic British children’s literature and outline the most important contributions it had to the development of British children’s literature in general.

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Concept of Imperialism, Racism, and Colonialism

The human history counts several great empires that made a considerable contribution to the development of human civilization, including the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Roman Empire, and other great nations. The concept of imperialism has its roots in the ancient times and has been taking many different forms since then. In modern researches, the term ‘imperialism’ often has a negative meaning as it is associated with racism and colonialism in its aggressive form. As these concepts are tightly interconnected with each other, it is necessary to define them here in correspondence with the principles of complementarity and interaction.

Feuer identifies two types of imperialism – regressive and progressive. Regressive imperialism is characterized by clearly defined exploitation, wars of conquest, pressure on the conquered people, and occupation of a conquered territory by the dominant nations of the conqueror. On the other hand, progressive imperialism implies a cosmopolitan view on humanity and encourages the development of civilization in the allegedly lagging nationalities in order to improve living standards and culture in the conquered territories, and allow conquered people to assimilate into the imperial society (Feuer 4-6). We may conclude from this definition that imperialistic societies were aggressive and racist in their nature, having in mind that empires had a tendency to colonize other nations’ territories and suppress the culture of the conquered people. Relying on this understanding of the concepts of imperialism, racism, and colonialism we may proceed to the discussion of the place of these concepts in British literature.

Colonial Discourse in the Late Victorian literature

The Victorian period considerably contributed to British imperialism and marked its highest point. With colonization of India and Africa, the British Empire reached its bloom and fortified its position in the European conquest for superiority. Imperialistic ideology occupied minds of common people, as well as the clerisy and the aristocracy. British literature was widened with novels about the greatness of the Empire, as well as disguised satire on the imperialistic society. Imperialistic ideology also found its way to children’s literature. The Victorian period gave birth to such a subgenre of British literature as the colonial novel, well-presented by such writers as Rudyard Kipling and Henry Rider Haggard. Colonialism was often connected with the genre of the romantic adventure story in children’s literature of the Victorian period. Works of such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson and R. M. Ballantyne evidence the popularity of this conception in children’s fiction of that time (Giddings 44). Such novels made a significant contribution to the construction and promotion of colonial ideology. Heroism of British citizens provided an unreserved justification of imperialism.

The Victorian literature was not restricted to colonial novels. Domestic literature of the British society was also very influenced by colonial ideology. Despite the fact that works of such authors as Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen focus on urgent problems of the domestic British society, events in the overseas colonies often play a significant role in their novels. Expanding the borders of domestic literature, colonialism provides the linkage between the domestic British society and colonial enterprise. The novels of that time contain ideas of the savage nature of natives and the white people’s desire to introduce them to civilization. These ideas encouraged the spread of racial and colonial ideologies and provided the conceptual framework for colonialism.

With the start of the postcolonial period, critics began exploring the ideological impact that colonialism had on British culture and society in the 19th century. Edward Said analyzing the Victorian literature argues that it was not motivated to represent the true features and history of the colonized people and their cultures. He states that it was used as the measure of ideological control instead and provided justification for colonization in general (38).

Further analysis of the Victorian literature reveals that colonial ideology stimulated the development of British feminism and had a great impact on the representation of the domestic class relations. The impact of colonial ideology on class distinctions often implied that lower classes were portrayed as “others” who share common characteristics with the colonized people and, therefore, require similar measures of control. Exploring the influence that colonial ideology had on the class, gender, and racial politics, critics reveal the complexities of colonialism and evaluate the influence it had on the Victorian literature and society. Such criticism allows drawing parallels with the contemporary neo-colonialism and evaluating the outcomes for the modern society.

In the nineteenth century, European colonial power gained significant domination over the colonized people through manipulation of their culture’s images and descriptions in discourse. Such manipulation was an effective addition to military power and technological advance. The ideological notion of the colonized people as the uncivilized “other” was the major strategic point of colonial discourse. The major aim of colonial discourse was to present the colonized people as a population of degenerates on the basis of race, in order to justify the intrusion and to establish systems of administration (Barker, Hulme & Iverson 22). The West was represented as the elevated entity in colonial discourse, and the non-Western world became the uncivilized other. The West was perceived as a norm, a positive example, and the East represented a deviant, abnormal culture. The alleged superiority invented by the West predisposed the course of relationships with the East and placed the fixed stereotypes in colonial discourse once and for all.

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The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature

Since history is mainly formed on the basis of stories of adult characters and events, there is not much historical content in children’s literature. Besides, it is often a challenge to present historical events in such a manner that would be interesting for children. Few historical characters are present in historical fiction for young people. Children’s writers often place historical figures in the background of the novel, allowing them only appear in the main plot as ghostly echoes of the past in order to add historical inflection to fiction (Lawson 4-5). However, there are unavoidable names that cannot be ignored due to their significant contribution to history and culture, as well as repute. As to children as heroes of the historical novel, there are two different ideas on this conception. In the first concept, children are observers who witness historical events without involvement in them. In the second concept, children directly participate in the historical events as they appear at the vortex of adventures that lead them to a meeting with history.

Historiography is similar with fictional texts in the idea that it invents plots in order to connect and give meaning to incidents from the past (White 61, 93). In Victorian England, historiographical discourses show a particular similarity with various forms of fictional writing, specifically with a fairy tale and chivalric romance. History in Victorian literature was not glorified but idealized in a playful way. This concept of history inevitably found its place in children’s literature. The examples of such works include Marryat’s Children of the New Forest, and Nesbit’s The House of Arden. In Children of the New Forest, four children of a noble family take shelter in the famous New Forest when attacked by Cromwell’s Parliamentary army in the Civil War. The story describes children’s adventures and attempts to survive in the forest. The novel is filled with historical references as the plot itself is based on the historical events and includes several historical figures.
With the birth of adventure novel, history finds another way of expression in children’s literature. The idea that reading would help children to explore the world and obtain useful knowledge conditioned the success of adventure novels in the 19th century. This concept was also supported by colonial ideology, which allowed the colonial discourse to embed in children’s literature. The popularity of adventure novels that gave children interesting stories they wanted quickly attracted attention of the British government. The imperialistic policy found its way to children’s hearts through adventure novels, cultivating hope and confidence in the British Empire as powerful and invincible state (Richards 109). Adventure novels written by such authors as Robert Ballantyne, William Kingston, Frederick Marryat, George Fenn, and others, gained significant popularity among British boys. The literary genre of adventure novel culminated in such a masterpiece as The Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Victorian period is believed to be a golden age of British children’s literature. The specific feature of children’s books of that time is that stories were not for moral didacticism that was before the Victorian period but for children’s entertainment. Such subgenres as an adventure novel, fantasy novel, and realistic stories appeared in this era. In addition, children’s books were filled with beautiful and colorful illustrations that made them even more interesting for children. The children’s literature of the Victorian period meant to strengthen the family unit and arouse children’s interest for exploration of the world through fascinating stories and adventures. Victorian books finally gave children what they wanted from literature in the best quality possible, and British children appreciated it. Such great stories as Robinson Crusoe, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Treasure Island, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and many more marked the beginning of the new era of children’s literature and made a significant contribution to British culture.

British Imperialism in the Late 19th Century

The British imperialism has its origins in the late 15th century at the time when the British Empire was founded as a result of the separation of England and Scotland. However, the expansion of the British colonial movement began only a century later with the reign of Elizabeth I and intensification of the Anglo-Spanish conflict. The overseas colonization of North America, India, and Africa gave the British Empire a great advantage against other nations. The successful British expansion was conditioned by a significant technological advance and a high level of industry development. By the late 19th century, the British Empire had reached its highest point of growth. With prosperous colonies all across the globe, advanced economy, and considerable military force, Britain took a powerful position on the international arena. I would like to present a detailed excursus into the British imperialistic society, colonial expansion, and development trends of the late 19th century British Empire.

Causes and Actors

The British Empire had five major motives for imperial politics and colonial ideology: technical, economic, political, social, and cultural reasons. Britain had to gain raw materials for industrialization and building of the railway that could be obtained from the untouched and undeveloped lands. The creation of additional markets for manufactured goods was the other major economic reason for colonization. The social situation was quite unstable in Britain. Between 1801 and 1851, the population of Great Britain and Ireland increased from 16 to 27 million (Whitacker’s Almanack 139). Such a population boom could not pass without serious social consequences. The growth of urbanization and the gap between the rich and the poor has led to disturbances and riots. Colonization was a great way to distract people from inner problems and give them an opportunity to seek for better options overseas. From the perspective of politics, Britain had to secure safe naval and supply stations and other strategic areas for the safety of the nation. Besides, the liberal-democratic ideas began to gain popularity in Britain, which led to rising political awareness of the working class. The middle class dominated the politics in the state; however, 80% of the population belonged to the working class (Lambert, 2013). Thus, this fact was a great concern of the ruling top. The cultural reason for imperialism came from the notion that distant lands would benefit from the developed European institutions. There was also a widespread belief coming from the social Darwinism theory that white races are more advanced than others and, thus, have the biological right to dominate over them. It was a good enough justification for British conquest. In addition, social problems gained more and more attention of the clerisy and became a major subject of literary work. The Victorian period gave birth to the so-called literature for the working class. This kind of literature only increased social tension in Britain, making colonial conquest a good way to reduce it.
Great Britain experienced significant changes in the 19th century. Apart from the reasons that pushed the nation to colonial ideology, there were deeper issues in the social, political, and economic contexts that the British Empire had to overcome. It was the time of reformation and debates circled around the colonial reform. There were two major topics in the public debates concerning the empire: the Empire’s separation from its colonies and unification of the Empire. One of the supporters of Britain’s separation from colonies, Henry Thring, argued for the establishment of the colonial government. His Suggestions For Colonial Reform (1865) contained four stages for a constitutional development of the colonial government: 1) occupation of new territory and Colonial Office Rule; 2) colonial status and the establishment of the local government; 3) division of local and imperial powers as a representative self-government develops; 4) independence. In his Exodus of the Western Nations (1865), Viscount Bury advocated the idea of a Confederation of British North America. His major suggestions were close trading, cultural relations, and British defense in Canada in case of attack. At the same time, Joseph Howe focused on the spirit of strength and power of the people and utopian ideas on the future structure of the Empire published in his pamphlet The Organization of the Empire. On the other hand, Louis and Bernard Mallet underlined the idea of free trade and peaceful interdependence within the Empire, distinguishing “the Empire of force” and the desirable Empire (Mallet & Mallet 98). Their opponents consisted of religious figures who supported the idea of unification of the Empire. They saw a great spiritual destiny of Great Britain and thought that the Empire was identical with the everlasting kingdom prophesied in the Bible (Seaman 21-24).

Such a dispute emerged dichotomy between “us and them”. In other words, colonial discourse represented contrasting opinions of the nationalistic, self-oriented social stratum that argued for distancing from the colonies and keeping the dominance over them and people who supported consolidation with colonies and provision of their independence from the Empire by the establishment of the colonial government.

The British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli added great importance to the dispute on the role and place of colonies in the political, economic, and cultural life of the British Empire. Disraeli promoted the idea of self-government of the colonies. He had four key points of imperial consolidation: imperial tariff; imperial trusteeship; imperial defense, and form of common imperial consultation on a representative basis (Imperial Senate). Disraeli turned attention to the Eastern Question, placing India at the center of colonial discourse. However, with his retirement, the Eastern Question was put out of concern. Disraeli also increased awareness of the rising of other powers, such as the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and Turkey. By purchasing the Suez Canal, Disraeli created a possible threat to other powers and fortified Britain’s position on the international arena. He also manifested the importance of administration of the Indian Empire in the interest of the Indians. Disraeli left his position at the time of the origin of the new imperialism in the late 19th century that emerged the second wave of British colonialism.

Another important figure of the colonial discourse is Joseph Chamberlain. His political career began when he was elected into the Parliament in 1876. He was the President of the Board of Trade under William Gladstone from 1880 till 1885. Since 1895, he was the Secretary of State for the Colonies. His view on imperialism had a great impact on his work. His main policy was to create a union between Britain and the colonies. He considered all colonies as important regardless of their economic value. Chamberlain wanted the Britons to be educated about the Empire to understand it better. He possessed the idea that the Empire was the solution to Britain’s declining power in Europe and the social and economic problems at home. Chamberlain tried to establish a common market between Britain and its colonies via the Tariff reform in 1903; though, it was denied by his party.

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Imperial Politics and Colonial Expansion

In the beginning of the 19th century, Africa was not of much importance to Great Britain. In 1815, Britain had only two colonies in Africa: Sierra Leone and Cape Colony. Apart from the colonies, there were trading posts on the Gambia and Gold Coast. In the next 60 years, Britain focused mainly on annexing regions close to the colonies it already possessed. After the Berlin Conference in 1885, the “Scramble for Africa” began as a reaction to the General Act of the Berlin Conference that aimed at limiting expansion and defend claims. Britain entered the race for colonies and, as a result, acquired possessions in Africa, as well as in South East Asia in order to secure the resources and markets for its industries and protect strategic interests (Townsend, Peake & Langsam 45). It was the climax of colonial expansion in the late 19th century for the British Empire.

Views and attitudes towards the imperial politics differed in several aspects. Radicals pointed at the dangers of financial waste due to colonial expansion. Conservatives and unionist supporters claimed attention to the obligation to civilize Africa and fight slavery. The anti-expansionist movement focused on the idea that expansion was unjustified. Christians hesitated to identify themselves with the work of the chartered companies. James Rogers, who was the Chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales at that time, also supported anti-expansionists, disputing the invasion of Uganda.

On the other hand, Africa raised new enthusiasm in British politics. Captain Lugard, the Champion of British Control in Uganda, argued that both the Empire and the Africans would benefit from the colonization of Africa (Koebner & Schmidt 196-221). His main point was that while supplying the Africans, the Empire would have an opportunity to receive in turn the products of their country and the labor force. At the same time, he suggested that Africans would have their use in the educating of the miracles of civilization from British colonizers. The spread of colonial ideology gained a high speed in the 19th century. It was promoted through advertising, popular press, literature, and music. Key events in the popularization of colonial ideology were the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1897 (Williams & Chrisman 278). Such bright and spectacular events evidence a high degree of enthusiasm for the Empire.

The turning point in the colonial expansion was the South African War (1899-1902). It was a war between the British Empire and the Dutch settlers of two independent Boer republics, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. The Great Britain won this war, and the countries went under British control. However, this war was devastating for the Empire in terms of social support and approval. The war was very expensive, and the public opinion turned against it. British citizens lost their faith in the Empire. Despite the fact that the British Empire has reached an enormous growth and became the biggest empire in the world, Britain realized that such a big Empire became a heavy load that was hard to control (Lowry 222-223). This thought emerged further decline and dissolution of the British Empire.

Joseph Chamberlain viewed imperial politics as an endless chain of obligations, where once undertaken, new obligations grew out of the old ones. The term “imperialism” acquired negative inflection, being perceived as a hostile slogan, mostly used in a derogatory sense. Such terms as “false” and “genuine” imperialism gained popularity among the population and press, and soon cropped into political language. The militaristic approach was seen as false imperialism while genuine imperialism was serving mankind by keeping peace, developing countries, and educating people. The Liberals blamed Disraeli’s concept of the Empire and imperial politics for the growing economic depression. Imperialism became entrenched in the public mind as a symbol of all political failures of Disraeli’s government.

“Christian Mission”: “Us versus Them“

Like all other counter hegemonic projects, post colonialism theorizes the experience of otherness as a matrix of a counter hegemonic agency. On the one hand, post colonialism testifies to a changed world characterized by increased tolerance and understanding of the racial and cultural differences. On the other hand, it mirrors a world saturated with imperialist ideas, stereotypes, and narratives (McGillis 1). The reformulated identity of social and cultural otherness has radically altered the conceptual knowledge of the world. Cultural hybridity, postcolonial, diasporic, and migrant in nature, is the most damaging of all threats to the hierarchical syntax of Western imperialism. In order to colonize indigenous natives, Western imperialism had to represent otherness as evil. Furthermore, in order to secure domination over the world, it had to totalize cultural and racial difference into the uniform logic of capitalism (8). According to the European instrumental reason, all those colonized countries that lack the competing technologies for controlling nature are secondary, peripheral, undeveloped, uncivilized, no matter how highly sophisticated their culture and social organization (7). It was not their moral, intellectual, or social superiority that enabled the Western empires to conquer the indigenous people, but their warships and cannons. The Western perception of racial difference is informed by the Western empires’ economic motives and reinforced and reproduced by their technological and military hegemony. The emergence of the instrumental reason and the capitalist mode of production urged the Western empires to seek colonies and exploit their natural resources thoroughly and ruthlessly through the various imperialist material practices. The economic and territorial ambitions were articulated in cultural, intellectual, and moral terms as philanthropic desires to “civilize” the savage and introduce him to all the benefits of Western cultures (JanMohamed 62). This was the “high mission” of British Christian missioners.

Missioners were sent to the colonized lands with the mission to proselytize indigenous people to Christianity. Christian mission can be viewed as another rationale for imperialism and colonial ideology within the broader context of gaining national wealth or balancing the powers. Apart from the main mission of turning people to Christianity, missioners carried out civilizing work. They were obliged to convert indigenous to European culture and civilization, as well as to Christianity (Johnson 100). Such liberal imperialism involved the provision of higher education and schools, regardless of their cultural belonging. Christian teachers and advocates performed their work with great confidence, believing that they do God’s will. The evidence of their work was a quick growth of the Church among the former slaves in such places as Sierra Leone and Zambia. Such confidence and efforts, however, aroused mainly from the idea that the locals appeared to be uneducated, undeveloped, and primitive, having no written works, cultural values, and little or no morals. However, the situation in Indian colonies was diametrically opposite.

In India, there was a complex system of beliefs and religious practices that had their roots in the remote past. These beliefs and religious practices were different from Christianity in their nature and often were offensive for Christians. Missionaries were concerned with the seeming perversity and irrationality of Hinduism with its odd idols with humans and elephant heads and eight-armed goddesses. In addition, such practices as self-sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and multiple forms of the ritualized murder were common among Indians that was terrifying and unacceptable for Christians.

Christian superstitious beliefs towards Indian culture and religious practices emerged the notion that many colonial cultures were under the control of “the Evil One”. Unfavorable descriptions of non-Christian religions contributed greatly to missioners’ enthusiasm regarding their mission. A lot of people thought that the missionary success would create a background for the Second Coming of Christ. This belief emerged hopes and expectations and contributed to the idea that the world has to change through the conversion to Christianity.

Missionaries often had important strategic information about local situations. For instance, missioners in Nigeria delivered the British government the geographic data on the Yoruba, Niger, and Benue regions that played an important role in Britain’s strategic plans. In such ways, Christian missions were the ideological arm of Western imperial aggression.

Education of Boys and Girls at Home

Despite the bloom of children’s literature in the Victorian times, education was available not for all British children. At the time of Queen Victoria’s reign, education was still mainly for the privileged. Rich children often had a governess who taught them at home until they were old enough to go to the privileged public schools, such as Rugby or Westminster. Public schools of that time could be attended only by boys while girls had to study at home under the guidance of tutors. A great number of poor children had no opportunity to attend school at all. However, later, Robert Raikes started a system of education that was based in churches, the Sunday school, and by 1831, more than one and a quarter million children were educated that way (Watts 776).

Since then, a number of day schools increased, and multiple schools for all groups of the population were established. In 1870, the Education Act was signed with a purpose of providing an opportunity for children aged between 5 and 10 to attend a weekday school. However, many children were still occupied with earning money for their families and were restrained by their parents and employers from going to school (Watts 780).

From this perspective, we see that most of the children were educated at home. In such a case, children’s literature was the major source of knowledge for young boys and girls. Children’s literature is written with regard to the author’s respective value systems and his/her notions of how the world is ought to be. These values, reflecting a set of vies and views regarding the questions of good and evil, moral norms and principles, human nature, and the importance of certain things in life, form the author’s ideologies. They may be unique to the individual author or may represent the values and notions of the whole culture, or subgroups within this culture.

As it was discussed in the previous sections, children’s literature of the Victorian period had an intensive growth and became a major literature genre along with novels, short stories, and plays for adults. Children books were entertaining and captivating, but at the same time, educating. However, on the contrast with canonic texts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that tend to teach children morality and human values in a dull, often religiously-oriented manner, children literature of the Victorian era was interesting and operated not only dry historical facts and moral admonitions, but also fascinating plots based on adventures of the main heroes. In such books, the authors revealed human qualities and principles, guiding children through the labyrinth of difficult moral choices, personal decisions, and obligations. The literary works are inevitably influenced by their authors’ views. Writer’s perception of the world has a great impact on plot and characters, the nature of conflicts and their resolutions, emotional tint, pointing morals, and many other features (Stephens 3). Thereby, the books express the writer’s personal ideologies. Children’s literature of the following era was filled with ideological implications of imperialism as it was a major concern to many people and was intensively promoted by the British government.

Children were educated to love their country and admire imperialistic values and greatness of the British Empire. Male public school “athleticism” aimed at fostering “manliness” of character, embracing such values as success, aggression, and ruthlessness, yet victory within the rules, courtesy in triumph, compassion for the defeated. Athleticism prepared boys for military or administrative service to their country. The Empire taught boys masculinity and courage while girls were taught to be feminine and domesticated. The literature had the same trends of education as public schools. Therefore, the same values were postulated in the children’s books, contributing to the imperialistic manner of education for children.

The African Novel of Henry Rider Haggard as Projections of Imperial Mentalities

Henry Rider Haggard was born in 1856 at Bradenham, Norfolk. Haggard was a son of a barrister, William Meybohm Rider Haggard, and a poet and author, Ella Doveton. He studied at Ipswich Grammar School while his older brothers attended various private schools. Such disparity in education among Haggard’s children was conditioned by their father’s inability to afford expensive private education any longer (Katz 9).

Haggard’s first encounter with Africa occurred in 1875. His father sent Henry to South Africa so as to take up an unpaid position as assistant to the secretary to Sir Henry Bulwer. When Haggard returned to England, he married Louisa Margitson in 1880, and they travelled to Africa together. As they moved back to England in 1882, Haggard began writing his first book King Solomon’s Mines. Publishing it in 1885 has been a great success to Haggard’s career of a writer. It was the first English adventure novel set in Africa. The novel is now considered as the origin of the Lost World literary genre.

Henry Rider Haggard’s novel had certain features that distinguished the writer from his contemporaries. For example, his wide perspective enabled him to escape racial prejudices. Haggard’s novels were full of humility and humanistic principles. Another unique feature of Haggard’s books is that he refused from the arrogant notion of the “white man’s burden”. Haggard tended to put natives in the spotlight and appreciated their cultural identity. His stories contain realistic and exact depictions, which makes them historically valuable. In an attempt to turn society’s attention to similarities between the black and white people, Henry Haggard created his unique view on colonization of South Africa.

The novel King Solomon’s Mines has several major themes. The first theme is directly related to the topic of this study. The theme of imperialism has a central role in the novel. In this story, we see how main hero’s attitude toward the tribes of Kafirs, Zulus, and other non-European characters represents the popular notion of European superiority over the “uncivilized” non-whites (Minter 16). Haggard depicts the harmful side of imperialism, as well. He discusses the impact it had on the colonized people. His experience in Africa helped him to form the awareness of the effects that British invasion had upon other cultures. Other themes of this novel include the value of knowledge, the virtue of bravery, race relations, the dangers of materialism, masculinity and femininity, and the triumph of science over superstition. However, as the main purpose of this research is the investigation of the British imperialism and colonial ideology in literature, I will focus on Haggard’s novels as the projection of the imperial mentalities.

Imperialism found its reflection in Haggard’s novels, as well as in novels of other popular writers. The major objectives of imperialism were depicted in literature with an inflection of nobleness. For instance, Christian missionary campaigns were presented as Britain’s divine mission to spread the “true” religion to all parts of the world.

The Adventurous Hero as Part of the Imperial Elite. “Christian Gentlemen”

The imperial hero of the late 19th century and early 20th century had several specific features. The heroes of the late 19th century were often the representatives of a pre-war generation. Anglo-German tensions, unstable relations with Ireland, Egypt, India, and South Africa raised sympathy for the idea of the heroic man and society. Soldiers were perceived as imperial heroes who fight for their nation and support the great ideas of the British Empire. In a paradoxical mixture of insecurity and aggression, heroes were constant and unvarying ideal.

In literature, heroes were imaginary reflections of the society that was interested in soldiers, athletes, and physical power. Literature heroes of that time can be categorized in two ways. The first type implies hero as a rebel, antagonist of society who has contradictory feelings towards the existing ideology. The second type implies hero as a defender who presents dominant forces of the society and supports the majority represented as a national or racial type. In general, literature hero embodied moral and social norms and turns willful only when the society shows signs of weakness.

Such authors as Robert Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and Henry Haggard made a significant contribution to the image of imperial hero in popular literature. For instance, imperial hero in such novels of Stevenson as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The English Admirals had a reputation of a robust optimist, enthusiastic for national honor. These books represented heroic English history and inspired the readers to be proud of their nation (Dawson 8). Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad had certain concerns about a hero in the context of a changing political and social climate. In his novel Kim and story The Bridge Builders from The Day’s Work, Rudyard Kipling presented the idea that each man is a potential hero and that the entire nation could be heroic. He emphasized the idea that heroic status can be achieved by proper regard of duty, discipline, and work. At the same time, Kipling felt that Britain did not appreciate enough the hard work of its imperial servants. Finally, Henry Haggard depicted Englishmen as natural born leaders in his King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain. His characters are strong and wise men who always find a perfect solution.

The novels of Henry Haggard represent the world full of adventures and fantastic events and characters. His heroes are often experienced men who encounter with mysterious and dangerous world of Africa. In King Solomon’s Mines, for instance, the main hero has a certain interest in the African culture and traditions; though, he finds himself in a battle against superstition. The magical customs of African people are presented in Haggard’s novels as dreadful and evil, and the main characters appear as heroes who fight bravely against the Devil’s servants (Katz 15). Such a way of depicting the protagonists and antagonists makes a great contribution to the concept of “the good” Christian colonizers and “the bad” indigenous “others”. In such a way, Haggard presents the readers his attitude towards imperialistic ideology and the idea of colonizing the distant lands.

The concept of Christian gentleman was a leitmotif of many imperialistic novels. The Christian gentleman is an ideal that called for discipline, education, duty, and moral purity (Banks 110). This concept often embodies the idea that women must be suppressed by men and must follow them faithfully on any occasion. This idea is subsequent with the belief that a Christian gentleman must follow his personal ambitions. As men were obliged to be masculine and women were required to be feminine in the Victorian era, the concept of a Christian gentleman was widely supported by the patriarchal British society. On the contrast with decent qualities of a Christian gentleman, the colonized people were seen as uncivilized, uneducated, and dishonorable. From this perspective, the attitudes towards a Christian gentleman were even more respectful than they were out of the colonial context. A Christian gentleman was perceived as the saver of the lost souls of the wild people of the colonized lands. Being a Christian gentleman meant having the ability to fight with superstition, wilderness, and disgrace.

Apart from the moral virtues, a Christian gentleman had to take care of his appearance. “The first impression counts” was an important principle of a Christian gentleman. It was believed that it is very important to dress well and properly because a gentleman could encounter with someone on the business purpose, for instance. A poorly dressed man does not make an impression, so the good appearance was a significant part of the Christian gentleman’s image (Roberts & Swords 92). The term “gentleman” assumes that a man has to have good manners in order to be a gentleman. Overall, a Christian gentleman has to dress right, speak right, and act right as he implies the God’s will and, therefore, must correspond with the image of a decent and religious man. The concept of the gentleman was not just one of the social or class designations; there was also an underlying moral code, and its definition was rather vague during the Victorian times.

Back on the topic of women’s suppression by men, I would like to add that the women’s role was to look after the house, cook dinner, and care for children while men had to work and protect their family. Such inequality emerged the belief that a woman has to know her place. This implied that a woman is a weak and helpless creature who is only good enough for babysitting and housekeeping. Despite the intention of gentlemen to protect and respect their women, the fact that women were perceived as inferior to men is humiliating and, unfortunately, still echoes in the modern society.

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Education of Boys

With the genesis of adventurous novel, British boys obtained a great opportunity to learn the principles of a Christian gentleman from the literature. In children’s literature, an adventurous hero played a central role and had a great impact on boys’ imagination. Such books cultivated positive moral values in children, such as valor, dignity, honor, courage, and patriotism. Boys wanted to be like their favorite heroes. British imperialism supported this motivation as the Empire needed fresh blood in its army and missionary campaigns.

Apart from the self-education with books, the England of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was focusing on the public education reform. In 1870, the Education Act was signed that marked the real birth of the modern system of education in England. In accordance with this Act, elementary schools were established nationwide. Schools were obliged to ensure attendance for all children aged between 5 and 13. The Education Act has passed owing to such organizations as the Education League that was established in 1869 and the National Education Union.

Schools for the upper and middle classes taught boys moral manliness. However, behind this concept, there was a fear of unbridled sexuality and bodily sensation. Schools often had a system of punishment for unwanted behavior. Punishment mostly included flogging. The practice of fagging was also common in Victorian public schools. This practice implied that younger pupils were required to perform services for older boys. It was justified by the idea that it prepared boys for a future role in the administration of the Empire by teaching them self-control, obedience, and authority.

In the middle and lower middle class education, sexual regulation was also prevalent. The standardized toys intensified the gender separation. Boys were encouraged to fretwork, perform chemical experiments, and play football or cricket. Reading grew popular among boys, especially with the appearance of boys’ magazines. However, these magazines were gender-specific and were published under parental supervision.

The most prestigious public schools of Victorian England, such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster, Rugby, and Charterhouse, developed from an institution founded by one patron in the late Renaissance. Such foundations usually suggested education for local boys from the humble backgrounds. With the rising number of students, schools evolved into boarding establishments. The major objective of public schools was to prepare students for such universities as Oxford and Cambridge and public service. The school curriculum was mostly based on the Greek and Roman classics. Later, the organized games were developed that became an important part of the educational process. The schools for boys were promoting a disciplined, responsible, and athletic model of education as the British Empire demanded new well-educated administers (Wells 22). For the pupils, the focus on such qualities as resoluteness, self-control, and a sense of duty transformed into a cult of athleticism. These virtues were perfectly expressed in sport games and conditioned the foundation of gentlemanly conduct. The education process was directed towards the cultivation of the moral and behavioral attributes required by the social elite.

There was another option for education in the England of the late 19th century. There were Grammar schools that were fee paying, but allowed the non-boarders to attend classes. The fee was not as high as the private (public) school fees. Grammar schools were for children older than 11 and provided a broader curriculum. In such schools, boys could learn more advanced math, literature, and science. However, the learning of Greek and Latin was still more preferred than learning of French and German as schools followed the educational standards of the private (public) schools. These schools were for the children of the middle classes. Students of the grammar schools were expected to fill the managerial and middling positions of the Empire. Military service was also available for graduates of the grammar schools; however, the positions that they could hold were slightly less popular. Often, grammar school graduates worked in the public sector as administrators of the train stations, stores, and post offices. The idea of teaching a national story turned out to have some prominence.

Metaphors of the Empire in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Novels A Little Princess and The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel A Little Princess represents and transmits an understanding of the “civilizing” mission of colonialism to its audience of imperial children. This novel fundamentally deals with self-respect, self-worth, and the power of imagination over cruelty, loss, and loneliness. Maintaining a status is the major theme of the story expressed in the idea that the main heroine obtains a privileged status by taking up the imaginary role of a princess. At the level of discourse, the figure of the princess allows Burnett to manage the complicated identifications and disavowals needed to produce this imperial subject. The ideological solution Burnett finds in the figure of the princess depends on the gendering of the figure. It is as a gendered figure that the princess continues to be utilized and redeployed in imperialist texts for children. Bixler points at the similarity of A Little Princess with Cinderella that is implied in some key details. For instance, the supernatural helpers in the story are replaced with main heroine’s (Sara) imagination: the magic is Sara’s ability to see the truth beyond external appearances with the help of her imagination (Bixler 89). This truth regarding to the novel’s plot is that Sara can be a princess even if she is dressed in rags as to be a princess is to be in control of self. Sara uses her princess’ image to control her temper: “If you were a princess, you did not fly into rages” (Burnett 71). The story suggests that Sara possesses some born nobility. This characteristic makes Sara more worthy of privilege than other people. In the child’s interpretation, as Burnett represents it, the status of the princess is based on inner worth, self-definition, and self-control. Sara’s assumption of the role of the princess occurs frankly as a compensatory strategy she devises after she has been deprived of the privileges and material comforts of being a parlor boarder.

Omnipresent in the fairy tales of the nineteenth century, princesses seem merely conventional characters of the genre. However, at the same time, the princess is a charged political term in the imperialist culture of the late 19th century Britain. Like other members of the royal family, a princess can function rhetorically as a metonym for the British system of rule at home and in the colonies. A Little Princess specifically invokes the context of the Indian and Anglo-Indian relations. Jenny Sharpe notes that the idea of the story was to represent the British rulers as the rightful heirs of the Mogul emperors (150). In 1876, Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India. It was a controversial decision that formalized her dominion over the Empire. From this perspective, Burnett’s story of a princess who assumes a “pretend” royal title no longer appears culturally innocent.

In “the whole story” of A Little Princess, Burnett secures Sara’s right to take the title of “little princess” not as a sign of inner, personal worth, but as her visible entitlement as a daughter of the Empire. Sara makes it clear that princesses are made by their subjects. Sara is mandated to cultivate inner worth, self-definition, and self-control by her status in the imperial system. Another main character, Becky, supports Sara’s imaginary status of a princess by insisting that she is a princess by a virtue of essential personal differences. In such a way, Becky reduces Sara’s fear that her loss of the status in the school makes her “just” another little girl, rather than a princess.

With all these qualities, Sara fits into the imperial Englishwoman ideal – a concept widely used by British writers of the late 19th and early 20th century. This kind of ideal woman is believed to be strong, benevolent, “of good race”, and must possess soldierly qualities in order to be prepared for adversity, helping her man. Sara’s inner strength and imagination help her to overcome difficulties. She retains integrity – what she calls being “a princess inside” (Burnett 66). Sara proves her preparedness for adversity: “Adversity tries people, and mine has tried you and proved how nice you are” (52). Sara admires soldiers and has respect for them, often positioning herself as one of them: “Soldiers do not complain. I am not going to do it: I will pretend this is part of a war” (48). Sara’s success in other roles she plays is an allusion to the role of English women at the time of the Victorian Age: mother/wife/daughter as a spiritual healer to the imperial father. Sara also embodies the innocence of childhood, making an allusion to the education of Victorian girls.

The belief that “the whole story” is rather about an imperial child coming to power than it is about a powerless child beset by the powerful adults is also evident in Burnett’s representation of the racialized other. In A Little Princess, there is a character that represents the British stereotypes of the Indian men. It is an experienced household attendant that Sara chooses to call “the Lascar”. Lascar is an Indian sailor on the merchant ships carrying the goods of the Empire between India and Britain, often underpaid and mistreated. Lascars were often seen begging on London streets when they stayed on shore for long periods between the voyages. Sara perceived the Lascar as one of the Indian soldiers who fought with colonizers in the First War of Independence. Burnett excises the reference to the Sepoy rebellion with its allusion to Indian insubordination to the British masters.

The substitution of night work for dream work makes evident the narrative function of the native servant in the production of the princess as a figure that permits the merging of inner and outer, imagination and reality. While reading the novel in regard with the imperial context, we may suggest that the real magic is located not in the princess’ royal reveries and self-control, but in the imperial subject’s power to command others. Thus, a world that corresponds with the images of her dreams is created. The native servant is also the rhetorical site on which the narrator transacts the relation between the child-adult structure and the Oriental-Occidental structure. Burnett secures the imperial father-daughter relationship as primary through representing the native as an “other” to be feared. The ambiguity of the figure of the native servant points to the increased tolerance and understanding of the racial and cultural differences, as well as the instability of the imperial hierarchy with reference to the Indian Mutiny.

Burnett’s novel also contains multiple metaphors for danger and possibility. It is implied in the liminal spaces in the novel, such as the attic with its skylight in Sara’s room. The description of Ram Dass’ physical access into and visual command of Sara’s attic room through the skylight can seem disturbing to some readers. Burnett’s text acknowledges the potential for danger, but quickly dismisses it in order to emphasize the possibility of “the Magic”. Burnett’s production and then denial of the threat makes this another instance in which readers are given a possible reading only to be asked to forget it. In A Little Princess, the penetrability of Sara’s room is a metonym for the girls’ sexual vulnerability (McGillis 125). This theme embodies the allusion to the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 with its rumors that English women were tortured and raped by the mutineers. The Munity was represented as a barbaric attack on innocent white women. The Indian Mutiny marked the limits of colonial power and vulnerability of colonial authority.

With its roots in the Victorian gardening passion, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden uses the image of the garden to frame and give answers to questions concerning master-servant and parent-child relationships in the English society, as well as to criticize imperialism of the Empire. Burnett’s language about the actual Secret Garden can reveal how her work feeds on, but also deviates from the Victorian concepts of the garden as a real and imaginary place.

In the novel, the metaphor of children as plants is carried on in speculations by various characters about Mary’s relationship to her late mother and the little girl’s fate. Mrs. Medlock voices the hope that “perhaps she will improve as she grows older,” much like a flower from a seed (The Secret Garden 16). Mary herself asks a version of the same question when she “wondered what the secret garden would look like and whether there were any flowers still alive in it” (35). It is here that Burnett presents the metaphorical thesis of the novel in the form of a question; what chances does Mary, a neglected and sickly child, have for a meaningful life, will she and the garden experience a full bloom?

The garden as a wilderness of plants may appear to be egalitarian, but much of the language Burnett uses to characterize it retains impressions of a monarchy. Blooming flowers are in successive passages “royal purple” and yellow (146), gold and white (199) and ruby (275). Both purple and gold suggest imperial colors. The images of monarchy taken from fairy tales strongly resonate with contemporary concepts of the Empire: the blossoming plum tree over Colin’s wheelchair is like a fairy king’s canopy (201), the boy’s ride around the garden “was like being taken in the state round the country of a magic king and queen and shown all the mysterious riches it contained” (202) while the old gardener tells Colin to “set the rose in the earth thy self same as the king does when he goes to a new place” (216). These similes of authority have contradictory functions, but as it will become clear later, they assume a new meaning in the Secret Garden; they signify not power over life, but the power of life.


This literature review investigates the most popular and examined trends of the empire and imperialism in classic British children’s literature. The discussed themes include concepts of imperialism, racism, and colonialism, with the focus on the colonial discourse in Victorian literature. The topic of British imperialism of the late 19th century is researched with regard to imperial politics and colonial expansion, and children’s education. This study focuses on such novels as King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard and A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett in the context of the imperialistic mentalities reflected in these works.

The Victorian period is characterized by the intense development of British literature and the genre of children’s literature in particular. As any other literature genre of that time, children’s literature did not avoid the intrusion of imperialistic ideology and colonial discourse. The Victorian era emerged the genesis of such subgenres as the adventurous novel, the Lost World novel, and many others. The appearance of such novels as The Treasure Island by Robert Stevenson, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard, The Jungle Book and The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling, A Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett, and many others, marked the new wave of children’s literature in Britain. Children’s books appeared entertaining and exciting in contrast with the didactic books of the Renaissance and medieval periods. Books for boys promoted the image of an imperial hero and a Christian gentleman, placing the characters of exceptional courage and nobility in the center of plots.

The ideas of the great power of the Empire and noble purposes of colonization circulated in stories for children throughout the Victorian Age. Victorian literature taught British children loyalty and honor, dignity and self-control, thus making them decent members of the imperial society. The major principles of the imperialistic ideology encouraged children to have faith in their empire, to bring Western civilization and education to the “undeveloped” people of the colonized lands, and to carry out the highest Christian mission around the world in order to give the non-baptized an opportunity to be saved by the all-embracing power of Christ. These objectives of the imperialistic society predisposed the course of the Empire’s development for the period of the late 19th and early 20th century.

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