Exclusively male and frequently isolated from the society of women for long periods of time, the soldiers, sailors, and officers who filled the ranks of the army and navy in nineteenth-century Britain were often also unusual for being able to give firsthand reports about foreign cultures, both within the colonies and without, particularly among the exotic-seeming societies of Asia or Africa. Those unique circumstances fostered a special form of masculine national identity, one largely shaped by expectations of the mess and the galley and one that placed more emphasis on personal honor and action than had been customary in earlier centuries.
John R. Reed explores this complex and evolving sense of masculinity in his groundbreaking new study The Army and Navy in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. As Reed remarks in the book’s preface, “Given recent interest in concepts of masculinity in the nineteenth century, it is strange that so little attention has been paid to that most prominent of masculine roles, the warrior.”
Reed’s broadly based study—drawing freely from memoirs and plays but especially novels and poetry of the time—helps fill this gap by documenting the widespread use of figures from the armed forces in nineteenth-century British literature and tracing the patterns that emerge, especially in the rendering of notions of manliness or masculinity. Those ideas changed markedly from the beginning of the century to the end, as a rough, physical ideal of masculinity gradually transformed into a moral, domesticated one, which in turn partially gave way to a freer, less-domesticated model. Those changes in turn mirrored a transformation in masculinity happening throughout the nation.
For readers more familiar with the literature of the period than its military history, Reed begins his work with a concise description of the British armed forces at this time, carefully describing the conditions under which they worked and in which they lived and discussing the class structures that determined where men fell in the military hierarchy. The book ends with a look at how Britain’s changing sense of its own imperial power related to the image of military personnel.
“This study is concerned chiefly with the presentation of evidence, the exposition of texts, and the clarification of details about the armed forces as important features of Victorian culture,” Reed notes later in his preface. “However, I am concerned here to show how the army and navy themselves, the public perception of them, and their roles in literature changed over the century, moving generally from an attitude of distaste to one of guarded respect and even admiration.”
John R. Reed, the author of more than half a dozen other volumes of criticism, is Distinguished Professor of English at Wayne State University.
1. The Experience of the Armed Forces
3. Military Fiction
4. Naval Fiction
5. The Armed Forces and the Theater
6. The Armed Forces in Literature
7. British Manhood and English Identity
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Reed, John Robert, 1938–
The army and navy in nineteenth-century British literature / John R. Reed.
p. cm. — (AMS studies in the nineteenth century, ISSN 0196-657X ; no. 42)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-404-64472-7 (cloth : alk. paper)
1. English literature—19th century—History and criticism.
2. Armed Forces in literature.
3. Armies in literature.
4. Navies in literature.
5. Great Britain. Army—In literature.
6. Great Britain. Royal Navy—In literature.
7. Masculinity in literature.
8. National characteristics, British, in literature.