Victorian Writers and the Image of Empire: The Rose-Colored Vision

Victorian Writers and the Image of Empire: The Rose-Colored Vision

Victorian Writers and the Image of Empire: The Rose-Colored Vision

Victorian Writers and the Image of Empire: The Rose-Colored Vision


Writers of imperial fiction in the period 1840-1914 created a strong image of the British Empire that was often confused with the empire as it actually existed. Even in the 1940s, many people in Britain and the British Dominions still accepted the stereotypical view that the British Empire was a highly moral creation. This book studies the literature of imperialism in the Victorian and Edwardian periods to show how this image of empire was created and how it developed such strength. The volume concentrates on the works of major writers of imperialism, such as Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, and G. A. Henty, but also looks extensively at the writings of less familiar figures, such as Robert Ballantyne and W. H. G. Kingston.

Many of the texts produced by these writers were books for boys, and they were very popular. They were often given as gifts and were awarded as prizes in schools. The books created a portrait of the British Empire as a place for settlement, the finding of treasure, the strengthening of religious beliefs and moral training, and the operation of codes of behavior for gentlemen. They emphasized courage and the willingness to face death in the service of Britain, and they suggested that the qualities of good citizens were the same as those of good imperialists. This was a comforting and influential concept during a period of imperial acquisition.


The writing of Victorian Writers and the Image of Empire originated in a personal quest. I grew up and went to school in a small, isolated Saskatchewan town during World War II and into the 1950s. Throughout the war, in the school assemblies, we all sang "Rule Britannia" as well as "war songs" such as "Pack up Your Troubles," and in this highly charged emotional atmosphere nobody challenged the value of the connection of Saskatchewan and Canada to Great Britain and her empire, not even those of us who were not of British ancestry. We not only accepted the "rightness" of the war, but also believed that since Britain always stood for right, there was virtue in our connection with such a moral power.

What felt like an innate truth was soon reinforced for me by my reading of a history of England and by my first introduction to a Henty novel, The Dash for Khartoum. Here obviously was not only excitement but more truth. That feeling of truthfulness survived my undergraduate years, aided by an intensely patriotic professor who taught us imperial history, and it was not greatly challenged by my experiences as a graduate student, at least not until I began research on my doctoral thesis. At this point I not only read A. P. Thornton's The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies but was fortunate enough to acquire Professor Thornton as my thesis supervisor. Both taught me that what constituted imperial history was much wider in scope than I had previously believed. The questions that now arose in my mind about the nature of the British Empire were further expanded when I came to teach British history and British imperialism at the university level. Always reluctantly, I had to retreat from my original and what I now felt to be naive views, and I became fascinated by new questions. Why had my experiences led to such a rosy view of Britain and her Empire, and why had my commitment to this view been so intense that only the accumulation of years of information and experience could free me? This study was born out of these questions.

Victorian Writers and the Image of Empire is not intended to be literary criticism, but is a historical study that incorporates literature. The literary criticism that does enter into my discussions is, intentionally, largely my own, as it has . . .

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