Kelly Boyd. Manliness and the Boys' Story Paper in Britain: A Cultural History, 1855-1940. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. ix + 274. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-333-64172-9.
Reviewed by Stephen J. Heathorn (McMaster University)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2003)
Manliness and the Boys' Story Paper in Britain is Kelly Boyd's long-awaited book on masculinity and the popular juvenile literature of the last half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. Since completing her Ph.D. in the early 1990s, Boyd has published a series of articles and chapters, each of which has subtly revised the existing historiography of this well-travelled field. With this book, Boyd stops teasing us with specific insights and instead lays out the big picture: a sweeping account of the role of youth-targeted periodicals in the construction of masculine identities over the entire period of their popularity. This is a well-written book and could easily be finished in one sitting. But it is also a monograph that, while covering some familiar ground, is packed with new interpretations and intelligent re-assessments. Cultural and gender historians of this period will be rewarded by giving this book their closest scrutiny.
The book is logically arranged, even if the combination of chronological and thematic structure leads to some basic points being too-often repeated. After a brief introduction, Boyd divides the book into three sections. In part 1, the context of both boys' lives (chapter 2) and the contours of boys' story paper publishing (chapter 3) is briefly surveyed. Part 2 comprises a chronological survey of story papers divided into three periods, each of which is given its own chapter. Chapter 4 looks at the Victorian era as well as the elitist and imperialistic flavor of the story papers, and at the aristocratic hero, whose manliness was tied to "patriotic love of country" and self-confidence in the face of any opposition. Boyd concentrates on how this "arrogant, class-ridden type" was presented to middle-class boys in an effort to "crystallize the link between masculinity and social status" through the idea that "true manliness emerged only from within the elite classes" (p. 47). She concludes that in this period, roughly from 1855 to 1900, the boys' story paper "played a crucial role in the reinforcement of elite strength, the necessity of hierarchy and middle-class hegemony" (p. 69). But by the end of the nineteenth century, this vision of manliness was under pressure from the ranks of the respectable working class, and Boyd suggests that the period 1890 to 1920 marked a transitional period in which the papers' depiction of manliness was "democratised." The heroes of Edwardian story papers, as detailed in chapter 5, were no longer aristocratic and arrogant; no longer was rugged individualism the acme of masculinity. The emphasis switched to sacrifice and communal values within the structured hierarchy of society. In this setting skilled working-class boys could be cast as heroes, becoming so by being team players, albeit for a team on which not everyone was equal. Finally, after the Great War, the shift away from youthful aristocratic arrogance and independence was completed. Chapter 6 examines the post-war years and finds that few of the interwar heroes were aristocratic; instead, boys from humble social backgrounds were shown what it meant to be manly not so much by the actions of their peers but rather by adult exemplars, most especially teachers. "The literature of the inter-war years posited manliness as a process arrived at through education" (p. 118); obedience and respect for adult leadership was thus rewarded in these tales. Masculinity was now tied to traditional sources of guidance and reinforced community values. The last major section of the book, part 3, is strictly thematic, focusing on how certain issues came to be depicted over the entire period. Chapter 7 re-examines perhaps the previously most-studied angle of story papers: imperialist attitudes and racism. While boys' story papers tended to play on racist stereotypes throughout their history, Boyd makes it clear that self-consciousness about race ebbed and flowed across the period of her study. She finds an unthinking acceptance of racist attitudes in the Victorian period shifting to a very self-conscious effort to humanize other races in the Edwardian era, with a return to the hardening of racial separation in the interwar years. She finds changing attitudes towards women in juvenile periodicals also fit loosely into her three period schema. Chapter 8 looks specifically at the role of women in the stories--a theme surprisingly neglected by both historians and literary critics. Chivalric attitudes towards women and girls dominate in the Victorian period, and the heroes of these stories "spent many of their adventures trying to rescue the heroine from a dastardly fate, while at the same time recognizing that she was capable of looking out for her self" (p. 171). The backlash against the suffragette movement in the Edwardian period, however, found its way into these periodicals, and in the middle period, male heroes were depicted as definitely superior to heroines. By the interwar period, women largely disappeared from the papers entirely, and where they remained they were presented as "truly the other; they challenged men at every turn" and seemed "eager to control men and boys by any means" (p. 172). Boyd relates these changes both to the growing anxiety about the place of women in society, and the need to teach boys their limitations and to respect traditional authority. As a minor aside, I wondered while reading this chapter what girls reading these periodicals would have taken from them, and despite the growth of girls' story papers, I would be surprised if girls did not also read these boys' papers.
In terms of source material, the book's focus is on the most popular and, surprisingly, the least-studied periodicals of the genre. The original story papers were designed for the upper-middle class, but Harmsworth's Marvel, Union Jack, and The Magnet of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, and the D. C. Thomson stable of periodicals, such as the Rover, Wizard, Vanguard, Skipper, and Hotspur, in the interwar years, receive the bulk of the attention. It was these publications, with their low cost and racy style, that appealed to the mass audience of mostly lower-middle-class and working-class lads, unlike the more often studied upper-middle-class papers like Chums and The Boy's Own Paper. This specific distinction about audience is crucial to Boyd's argument. It is the mass market of the boys' story paper that makes her argument about the role of periodicals in the construction of masculine identity possible. Boyd hinges her case on the fact that publishers had to be responsive to the desires of their audience if they wanted to succeed in keeping (and expanding) their market share. It allows her to claim that the models of masculinity in these periodicals must have appealed to their readership because they continued to spend money on buying the papers and thereby willingly, if perhaps unconsciously, imbibed the views of the authors of the papers, as opposed to the force-fed diet of social prescription evident in didactic literature and schooling.
Overall the analysis of the story papers in the book is convincing and Boyd should be congratulated for her well-reasoned analysis. Her project does raise some questions about some of the common assumptions of this kind of cultural history, however--questions which I have struggled with in my own work, and for which I have yet to find satisfactory answers. Boyd stresses that her book is a cultural history of juvenile periodicals rather than a literary analysis of the genre. After the preliminary discussion of the readership and conditions of publication, what this distinction actually means is a bit hard to describe; most of the book concentrates on the implicit didacticism of the stories themselves, and any distinction between cultural history and cultural or literary studies is consistently blurred. In this regard, two key claims of the analysis present interesting problems: first, it is asserted, with varying degrees of confidence, that the story paper was instrumental in providing models of masculinity for their readership; second, these role-models and the values they embodied changed significantly over the period. Boyd demonstrates well, through her analysis of the narratives and character development, the second claim; as noted above, she skilfully demonstrates the shifting of the values of heroism and manliness exuded by the protagonists of the stories in three different periods. Moreover, Boyd demonstrates well the degree to which the periodicals she has studied focused on, indeed seem to have been obsessed with, the "exploration of manliness." However, this, and the careful delineation of the market in the opening chapters, does not demonstrate the way in which masculine models in the periodicals were received by the readership. The contextual and memoir evidence analyzed, while sometimes compelling, I think is too thin to fully support large, general claims of the type made in this book. Boyd is clearly aware of this problem, as her concern not to overstate the connection between periodicals and masculinity is evident in the introduction (p. 4). Still, her confidence about the impact of these periodicals seems to increase over the course of the book so that on the last page we are told that, although it is impossible to "be precise about the impact of this literature on youths," it was nevertheless "a powerful weapon in establishing the contours of manliness, far more effective than didactic literature with the same aim" and further, that "popular fiction was essential in maintaining the gender order in a capitalist economy" (p. 180). But the contrast with "didactic" literature is both a weak comparison on which to base the success of her own case and a questionable assumption given that she does not analyze the success of such didactic material in her book. Moreover, young readers did not come to these periodicals as blank slates; they had already learned to read and (partly in the schooling process) had already acquired a world-view, including ideas about gender, before they ever picked up a story paper.
This book's approach and arguments are based on the presumption that the activity of reading fiction chosen for enjoyment and bought freely has a more measurable impact on the culture and psychology of its readers than other forms of reading experience. On the one hand it is an eminently reasonable presumption: whole academic disciplines are, of course, based precisely on this idea. The cultural historian, however, needs to ask some difficult questions about the connection between the literature and its readers. For one, the variables of the market and the relationship of the consumer to it, I would suggest, are somewhat more complex than Boyd seems to allow. Boyd's case for the significance of story papers in helping fashion masculinity rests on the inter-relationship between readership and publishers: if the stories in the periodical did not appeal to the readers they would not sell, and the publisher had to change the stories or go out of business. But one piece of evidence from the book stands out as questioning whether it was really that simple: in discussing publishers' strategies, Boyd quotes from the son of a Derbyshire worker who admitted in a memoir that he and his friends' choice of story paper was determined less by content than by what free gifts were available in that week's crop of periodicals (p. 40). In her discussion of this reader's attitudes to story papers, Boyd concentrates on the fact that the reader clearly distinguished between the class of readers for which particular papers were intended, but she makes no comment on the fact that it was the free gifts that ultimately decided what this reader would buy (and that the upper-class papers never had free gifts). Marketing alone persuaded the Derbyshire lad what would be his weekly story paper, not the stories inside. Variables other than just content must have been at work in the buying choices of many of the adolescents in the heyday of the story paper.
When it comes to the deconstruction of the actual stories, Boyd's analysis is convincing, but some sceptics will no doubt ask how we can be sure that Boyd's reading of these stories as well as the values and attitudes of masculinity she finds in their heroes is the same as the reading of the original audience. Having faced the same difficulty in my own work, I am sympathetic to the problem of measuring the effects of reading. As already noted, Boyd does try to use personal accounts that discuss the reading of boys' papers, but by necessity she bases most of her observations concerning reception on the replies to letters to the papers signed by readers using the names of favorite characters along with the few, mostly well-known, memoirs and contemporary discussions like those of Robert Roberts and George Orwell. This is not a very large source base to make claims about either the impact of the periodicals in fashioning masculinity, however indirectly, nor to test her own reading of the hegemonic representations of masculinity with the understandings of its original audience(s). There are many possible variables here, and it is quite possible that differing segments of the readership took multiple and quite different meanings from these tales. Boyd's analysis provides only one possible reading of the many that might be conditioned by factors other than just general social status. Could not age or regional and urban/rural variations have played a role in the different ways in which these stories might have been understood and their messages internalized (if at all)? While I agree with her arguments for socially distinct, dominant conceptions of prescribed masculinity in specific periods and, moreover, for the need of a coherent thematic organization to her book, if dominant ideas about masculinity were so flexible as to change over time (which again, I entirely agree with), surely then they were also far more malleable and unstable than unitary thematic conceptions for any given period, even allowing for variations across class. In her individual chapters, Boyd carefully notes the variations in the presentation of masculine virtue that she finds, but she tends to relate these differences to her major organizing, unitary themes, which for each chapter is explained by reference to wider social and economic changes affecting the lower-middle and working classes as a whole. As a cultural history of masculinity, the thematic organization of the book thus seems to me to be unduly confined by a rather conventional social historical narrative.
But this review should not end on a negative note, for despite these reservations, let me reiterate that Kelly Boyd has produced an excellent, intelligent, highly readable, and enjoyable book.
. Kelly Boyd, "Knowing Your Place: The Tension of Manliness in Boys' Story Papers, 1918-39," in Manful Assertions: Masculinities in England since 1800, ed. Michael Roper and John Tosh (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 145-167; "Exemplars and Ingrates: Imperialism and the Boys' Story Paper, 1880-1930," Historical Research 67 (1994): pp. 143-55; and "'Half-Caste Bob' or Race and Caste in the Late-Victorian Boy's Story Paper," in Negotiating India in the Nineteenth Century Media, ed. David Finkelstein and Douglas Peers (Basingstoke and New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), pp. 63-83.
. In the interests of full disclosure, I need to acknowledge that I argue that classroom culture prepared working-class youth with the kind of cultural literacy needed to make sense of the periodicals that Boyd analyzes in my For Home, Country and Race: Constructing Gender, Class and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914 (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2000).
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Stephen J. Heathorn. Review of Boyd, Kelly, Manliness and the Boys' Story Paper in Britain: A Cultural History, 1855-1940.
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