Young Masculinity and "The Other": Representations of Ideal Manliness in Twentieth-Century English Boys' Annuals

By Farley, Pauline | Thymos, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Young Masculinity and "The Other": Representations of Ideal Manliness in Twentieth-Century English Boys' Annuals


Farley, Pauline, Thymos


Twentieth-century English boys' annuals often defined masculinity against notions of the "otherness" of gender, race and class. The children's annual, which developed as a popular literary form during the Victorian period, was designed to instruct and entertain. Dominant ideologies about gender, race and class were reproduced and reinforced for an uncritical readership. High production values meant that annuals became a form of "hard copy," re-read by several generations. In boys' annuals, mid-Victorian styles of masculinity were reiterated during the twentieth century. In these narratives, boy heroes demonstrated superiority to various groups of "others," thereby modelling and inscribing an increasingly old-fashioned masculinity and preserving older ideologies. Exploring a neglected area of ideological history of gender, this article shows how boys' annuals presented readers with notions of "masculinity" defined by comparison with "the other," who might be indigenous, feminine or lower-class.

Keywords: masculinity, identity construction, English boys' annuals, otherness, instruction, generic popular literature

In boys' annuals, a popular form of children's literature that developed during the Victorian period, prescriptive ideas about masculinity were propagated through text and illustration. In his introduction to Imperialism in Juvenile Literature (1989), Jef- frey Richards maintained that "[pjopular fiction is one of the ways by which society in- structs its members in its prevailing ideas and mores, its dominant role models and legitimate aspirations" (p. 1). Regardless of whether or not these ideas and mores are based on inequalities, popular fiction perpetuates them, for it plays a dual role. Not only does it reflect "popular attitudes, ideas and preconceptions," but it simultaneously generates "support for selected views and opinions" (p. 1). This means that such views and opinions can gradually come to appear as "true." As Mills (1997) remarked, "representations [...] structured largely according to certain discursive formats [...] accrue truth-value to themselves through usage and familiarity" (p. 107). Like children's magazines and periodicals, boys' annuals were a form of popular literature presented to child readers as a "treat" or a reward, and therefore they had a positive socio-cultural connotation. This added to their power as teaching devices. Also, because boys' annuals remained on bookshelves and were read over and over again, boy readers were subjected repeatedly to the ideas which they contained. Publishers had high production values for annuals and designed them carefully to attract both adults and children. Annuals were often given as prizes and Christmas presents, forming a large part of the lucrative juvenile Christmas publishing trade and reinforcing the annuals' positive association with pleasure, leisure and holidays (Sims & Clare, 2000, pp. 351-361).1 From early in the twentieth century, with the "budget" publishing style annuals became available to a much wider audience and their popularity with children and adults continued until late in the twentieth century.

English children's books "came into being less to delight than to instruct" and a key part of their didacticism was to transmit ideological "manliness" or "womanliness" to children (Nelson, 1991 , p. 1).2 Popular literature played a significant role in the development of masculine identity in boyhood. Sims & Clare (2000) have observed that "annuals and short story collections [for children] are a much under-researched subject" (p. 351). In his brief summation of the field of boys' annuals, Kirkpatrick (2000) does not examine in any detail the ideological thrust of such material, but in some accompanying remarks that concern short stories in collections for children, he notes that "generally, they were fairly whimsical, light reading with no serious purpose" (p. 357). The present article argues that this was far from being the case.

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