When Men Were Men

“That is the lot of a girl in a Boy’s Own book: to cook the dinner and be less exciting than a tiger”

Open Season
Manly virtues: Allan Quatermain instructs his men to fire on the enemy in an 1888 illustration

What misery to be a girl in a Boy’s Own novel. While the chaps sail catamarans and build campfires, scale volcanoes and outrun dinosaurs, clash swords and commandeer hot-air balloons, the girls have a dull old time of it. They are there to wear a white nightdress, be serially abducted and rescued, and make the tea.
When the boy hero of Richard Jefferies’s novel Bevis finds a girl on his supposedly deserted island, he and his friend Mark, who have been failing miserably to cook the ducks they’ve shot, appoint her their skivvy.

“Make her fetch the water,” they cry. “Chop the wood.” “Turn the spit.” “Capital; we wanted a slave!” “Just the thing.” “Hurrah!” “But it’s not so nice as a tiger.” “O! No!” “Nothing like.”

That is the lot of a girl in a Boy’s Own book: to cook the dinner and be less exciting than a tiger. Even the immortal Ayesha of H. Rider Haggard’s She, “awful vindictiveness” written on her features, is, for all her fearsome reputation, really only waiting around for the reincarnation of her aeons-lost lover to return. The native people who fear her wrath claim to worship women, but only, explains a tribesman, “up to a point, till at last they get unbearable, which they do about every second generation.” “And then what do you do?” asks our narrator. “Then we rise, and kill the old ones as an example to the young ones, and to show them that we are the strongest.”

If I were a proper feminist I’d be retrospectively raging at the misogyny, the gender stereotyping, the lack of equal opportunities presented by the golden age of boys’ adventure stories published between the 1860s and the First World War. I’d be calling for “trigger warnings” in the prefaces to Jules Verne, Richard Jefferies, Mark Twain, Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Hope and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “This book contains passages offensive to women.” And that’s before you’ve even started on the racial insensitivities of those incorrigible oppressors Haggard, Twain and Conan Doyle.

Twain’s unenlightened Tom Sawyer, to take one example, observes: “What a curious kind of a fool a girl is . . . they’re so thin-skinned and chicken-hearted . . . They ain’t got no backbone.”

That was in 1876. Were things any better by the time Anthony Hope came to write his sword-clashing, identity-swapping, boar-hunting Prisoner of Zenda in 1890? Hardly. When our red-headed hero’s sister-in-law has the temerity to speak her mind she is met with the patronising: “Bless her!”

Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, published in 1912, is just as bad. Professor Challenger, the roaring, raging adventurer described as “a homicidal megalomaniac with a turn for science” by one newspaper editor, picks up his diminutive wife and bawls, “Stool of penance!” before depositing her on a dunce’s chair in the hallway.

I ought, of course, to be outraged, but I rather like the company of these unreconstructed males in their linen suits and pith helmets (the men) and ragged trousers and ratty straw hats (the boys.)

I came to these Victorian and Edwardian boys’ books late, in the last year or so, having missed them when I was younger. Too busy reading Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, I suppose. Spirited as Anne Shirley and Jo March are, neither of them ever wielded a catapult with much conviction.

Since discovering Verne and Rider Haggard last summer, I have rattled through Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Bevis, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, King Solomon’s Mines, She, The Lost World, and The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau.

A greater part of the appeal is wish-fulfilment. In my heart of hearts, I know I am the sort of girl whom Professor Challenger would put on the stool of penance, whom Bevis would force to fetch the water, and who would sit at home like Rose eating boiled eggs at the breakfast table while others duelled their way across Ruritania. If anyone is going to twist an ankle, be captured and need rescuing by Phileas Fogg, it is me. I am a hopeless camper and horrified by mosquitoes, white-water rapids, mountain climbing and “abroad” in general. I am that worst of creatures: what Molesworth would call a “gurl”. Chiz, chiz.

It is thrilling, though, to have it all vicariously through Challenger, Phileas Fogg, Davie Balfour, Bevis et al. With them, I have sailed underground seas in a coracle, blasted through granite with gunpowder, been bellowed at by hippopotamuses and taken pot- shots at basking crocodiles. I have camped on the banks of the Amazon and been nose-to-beak with a pterodactyl. And I have done it all without getting so much as a speck of Mississippi mud on my petticoats.