Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

It's What's Inside That Counts

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

It's What's Inside That Counts

Article excerpt

Joanna Lewis on a theory that valuing character over achievement helped limit Empire queasiness

Heroic Failure and the British By Stephanie Barczewski Yale University Press, 280pp, £20.00 ISBN 9780300180060 Published 18 February 2016

It was Bonnie Tyler who posed one of the big questions of the 1980s: "Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?" In her hit Holding Out for a Hero, she told us what to look for: "He's gotta be strong, and he's gotta be fast, and he's gotta be fresh from the fight." But apparently she got it wrong. According to Stephanie Barczewski, we like our heroes dead, hopeless at following directions, and if they have a gammy eye or dodgy leg, even better.

It has long been the view that the British love a trier. They champion the underdog and adore the ridiculous outlier: think Captain Scott meets Eddie the Eagle meets Peter Andre. But Barczewski's new twist is that the British have done this more than any other people on earth, and for longer, because of empire. She homes in on the classic staples of fallen heroes including John Franklin, David Livingstone and General Gordon, with a dash of the Light Brigade to illustrate our inner Kipling (not Mr but Rudyard); namely that triumph and disasters come and go, but it is character that matters more. In other words, "cometh the failure, cometh the man".

Barczewski sees a growing emphasis across the 19th century on character over achievement and on failed heroes more than successful ones because "the British were not comfortable seeing themselves as conquerors", and it was a device to maintain the pretence "that the British Empire was above things other than power, force and domination". It was a strategy that only the most powerful could indulge in: the ultimate great-power trip.

This is a very readable book, and it's always nice to see imperial figures winkled out of their post-colonial shell for a wider audience to pick over. …

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