decorated initial 'I'n some Victorian novels, both for children and adults, we find the opposite extreme: that is to say, not a boy who is implausibly set into the moral mould, but one whose animal spirits are allowed free rein. Here is a figure from the literary past, which, as manhood approaches, offers special opportunities to the novelist in an age of moral restraint. Its origins are very obvious. As Anne Brontë's Arthur Huntingdon Sr. as well as Charlotte Brontë's Mr Rochester show, Samuel Richardson's rakes continued to have their allure; as for the Byronic hero, Mrs Oliphant, enemy of the sensationalists, was still trying to stamp out his influence in 1882. Don Juan, she cries angrily, is nothing but a "dissolute page ... a depraved Cherubino, an impudent and shameless boy." She castigates the poet for having given the world "a worthless image like this as the quintessence of youth and romance" (85). But into this image Emily Brontë in particular had breathed new life. Heathcliff became even more popular later in the reign than Mr Rochester. Mr Earnshaw's words on introducing Heathcliff to his wife serve to raise doubts about the child's spiritual parentage: "you must e'en take it as a gift of God; though it's as dark almost as if it came from the devil" (36); when he returns to take his revenge on Hindley and Edgar Linton, his "cannibal teeth," "basilisk eyes" and sadistic behaviour definitely favour the more sinister possibility (177, 180). This gypsy-like/devilish strain crops up in older boys and is never without its attractions. Part of these boys' fascination for the reader lies in their struggle to resist convention. But they are never allowed to take up the role of the hero.

"Lead on, Bohemian bold." Reginald Bassett plays the fiddle in Reade's A Terrible Temptation (263). [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Reginald Bassett in Charles Reade's A Terrible Temptation is a case in point. Like the three dark-complexioned, wilful Yorke boys in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Reginald seems to be at least partly a descendant of Heathcliff. His dark hair, gypsy complexion and "savage glittering eye" (288) betray his literary ancestry, as well as a fact immediately relevant to the plot — that he is not the true heir to the Bassett estate. Reginald illustrates the rebel strain, its waywardness and its appeal, well (see fig. 12). He has much more spirit than his supposed brother, golden-haired and obedient Compton Bassett, whose head, as Lady Bassett says herself, is "full of cowslips" (273); and although Reginald is an unlikely lad in every sense, he runs away not only from school, but also with the second half of a narrative in which the older male figures are foolishly locked in an inheritance feud. He suffers, though: the note he sends to Lady Bassett after his absconsion is full of pathos: "It is very unfortunate to be a boy. When I am a man I shall be too old to be tormented" (303). Eccentricity does bring some reward: Reginald is last seen as a "prosperous squatter" sleeping under the stars in Australia. But the fact is that such a boy cannot finally be co-opted as a hero in the world of the Victorian novel. "England was not big enough for that bold Bohemian," Reade rightly concludes (351).

Indeed, writers were criticized for drawing such young renegades: Charlotte Yonge, self-appointed guardian of the nation's youth, speaks sharply to women authors who, she feels, sacrifice their "womanly nature" by adhering to (and presumably perpetuating) "the world's notion of manly dash" ("Authorship" 192). The Byronic inclinations of her own seventeen-year-old Guy Morville in The Heir of Redclyffe, are treated with such a dose of Tractarian medicine that he dies as holy a death as any Victorian mother could have desired. Here is a typical reaction against what were seen as Romantic excesses. In the end, then, the most high-spirited youths of adult fiction receive very similar treatment to those in children's fiction (see "Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Fiction: Orphans, Outcasts and Rebels"). It seems impossible to reconcile the older pious and the contrasting raffish ideals of youth in the Victorian novel; some other concept of manliness had to be found as the source of the period's more satisfying heroes.

Last modified 15 January 2011