By Stephen Basdeo
A book of mine has just been through the final proofing stage and is now with the printers and, the coronavirus pandemic allowing, will be released on 30 June 2020.
A popular history book titled Heroes and Villains of the British Empire, I give a cultural history of how imperial ‘heroes’ were viewed in British popular culture.
Do excuse the seemingly uber-patriotic front cover—open the book and you’ll see that all is not as it appears. The figure on the front cover is not a soldier but actually a penny dreadful hero/rogue called Jack Harkaway and much of the book is taken up with an analysis of radicals’ thoughts on imperialism and their writings in popular fiction and poetry (besides, if by the very ‘imperialist’ cover I can ride the popularity of what some have called the recent wave of imperial nostalgia, earn some money, while also surprising people by elucidating the ‘alternative’ contemporary views of imperialism, so much the better)
This is where Reynolds comes in—the works of the Victorian era’s best-selling author, famous democrat and anti-imperialist, and whose newspaper was selling over 300,000 copies per week by the 1880s, simply had to be included!
I give below an excerpt from one of the many discussions of Reynolds’s thoughts about the empire and army service, and the below focuses upon his most harrowing novel titled The Soldier’s Wife(only slightly amended in parts to take account that it is a blog).
A lot of Victorian fiction from the mid-to-late nineteenth was highly patriotic. But for George William MacArthur Reynolds, there was little to be patriotic about. Reynolds, in his masterpiece entitled The Mysteries of London(1844–48)—a long running serial which eventually comprised four volumes—highlighted at the outset the fact that Britain and its queen, Victoria, may have ruled over the ‘greatest’ empire the world had ever known, but this did not benefit its citizens at all:
And in one delicious spot of that mighty city [London]—whose thousand towers point upwards, from horizon to horizon, as an index of its boundless magnitude—stands the dwelling of one before whom all knees bow, and towards whose royal footstool none dares approach save with downcast eyes and subdued voice. The entire world showers its bounties upon the head of that favoured mortal; a nation of millions does homage to the throne whereon that being is exalted. The dominion of this personage so supremely blest extends over an empire on which the sun never sets—an empire greater than Genghis Khan achieved or Mohammed conquered. This is the parent of a mighty nation; and yet around that parent’s seat the children crave for bread!
Although it was written in the 1840s, Reynolds’sMysterieswas still being reprinted by a several publishers into the 1880s, when some of the more pro-imperial works by the likes of G.A. Henty were being printed, so his powerful criticisms of the establishment would still have been known during the era of ‘new’ imperialism (1884–1914).
Reynolds rarely missed a chance to criticise the establishment, and as for Victoria herself, she was portrayed in Reynolds’s Mysteriesas a rather frivolous, flighty young woman who was at best ignorant of the plight of the poor or, at worst, simply indifferent. Prince Albert was no better in Reynolds’s eyes: to Reynolds the Prince was little more than a useless Tory sycophant who, far from being a sponsor of social progress, through his secret friendship with the likes of Robert Peel, was an oppressor of the working classes. The monarchy did not care for its subject peoples and so the people should not care for the monarchy.
In such a context, why would any worker take up arms and serve Queen and country, especially when army life was unpleasant, brutal and took men away from loved ones? The answer: desperation.
In Reynolds’s The Soldier’s Wife(1852–3), in fact, the army is depicted as a service which only the most desperate or destitute men enter. Written principally as a blistering critique on the inhumane practice of flogging in the army, the novel revolves around the fortunes and misfortunes of a kindly Lucy Davis and her lover, the initially warm-hearted and good Frederick Lonsdale. Possessing not the means with which to marry Lucy, Frederick deplores his penniless condition until a solution presents itself.
A recruiting sergeant named Mr Langley alights from the stagecoach at the small village of Oakley, where Lucy and Frederick live. Langley beguiles the young lads assembled in the local tavern with the glories of army life:
“Talk of the hardships of a soldier’s life!” said Mr Langley [the recruiting officer] … “why it’s the most beautiful state of existence that can possibly be conceived. Here you have great your great lords and wealthy gentlemen paying large sums of money out of their own pocket to travel on the continent and see the fine things there; but the soldier travels to the most distant part of the earth at no expense of his own. What an honour to have your Sovereign take such an interest as to pay your travelling expenses!”
Yet as Reynolds’s novel demonstrated, the army brutalised those who serve it through regular lashings which in turn make it too easy for soldiers to succumb to alcoholism to relieve their melancholy; Reynolds was an advocate of teetotalism and in many of his works the protagonists suffer their downfall as a result of overindulgence in drink, as the good clergyman does in Reynolds’s Rosa Lambert. In turn, the wives and children of soldiers, as depicted in The Soldier’s Wife, all too often fall into poverty. This is exactly what happens to Lucy; as her husband—for the pair do eventually marry—is serving in the army and receives only a pittance, much of which he spends on drink, Lucy is forced to take employment as a seamstress. Cut off from her favour and having to survive on the wages of her needle, she regularly goes hungry to feed her child.
Frederick almost becomes odious in the eyes of the reader. He seems unconcerned at his wife’s plight and, when he does obtain leave and goes to stay with her in his humble abode, as the book progresses he beats her in an alcohol-induced rage.
Reynolds’s point was clear: this is how the army degrades not only the soldiers but their families as well. Frederick hates army life and commits insubordinate acts regularly, for which he is regularly flogged. At the end of the novel Frederick, having repented of his earlier brutal treatment towards Lucy, is, due to many acts of insubordination, sentenced by a military court to death by firing squad.
The death of Lucy and her child from illness and poverty soon follow.
This was the thanks that soldiers received for doing their duty to their country. In spite of Reynolds novel, flogging with the cat-o-nine tails as a result of court martial punishment was outlawed in 1881 but it was still used as a form of summary punishment in military prisons, and continued to be used as a punishment until the 1940s.
Reynolds was not alone in highlighting the awful life which faced prospective soldiers should they enlist and do their duty to their country. An anonymously written broadside entitled The Soldier’s Catechism, published around the same time as Reynolds’s novel, similarly points to the unpleasantness of the life of a soldier:
Question. What is your name?
- Who gave you that name?
- The recruiting sergeant, when I received the enlisting shilling, whereby I was made a recruit of bayonets, bullets, and death . . .
- Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief.
- I believe in the Colonel Most Mighty, Maker of Sergeants and Corporals; and in his Deputy the Major, who is an officer by Commission, and rose by turn of promotion, suffered the hardships of field-service, marching and fighting; he descended into trials; after the wars he rose again; he ascended into ease, and sitteth upon the right hand of the Colonel, from whence he will come to superintend the good from the bad. I believe in the adjutant; the punishment of the guardroom; the stopping of grog; the flogging with cats; and the certainty of these things lasting. Amen.
Similar sardonic remarks about army life followed, highlighting the low pay and the drudgery of life in the forces under what could often be tyrannical superior officers.
And for whom did the soldiers of the empire fight when they were sent overseas? They might think that they were fighting for the honour of their queen, country, and empire, but as Reynolds argued in Reynolds’s Newspaper, they were little more than the pawns of a capitalist oligarchy, ‘a Joint Stock Company of Kings’, he called them.
Stephen Basdeo is Assistant Professor of History at Richmond: The American International University. He is currently writing a monograph on the political philosophy of G.W.M. Reynolds. His book, from which the extract above is taken, is available from the publisher: https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Heroes-and-Villains-of-the-British-Empire-Paperback/p/17856
Humpherys, Anne and Louis James, eds., G.W.M. Reynolds Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press(Farnham: Ashgate, 2008)
Reynolds, G.W.M. The Mysteries of London, 4 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1848)
Reynolds, G.W.M. ‘The Selfish and Rapacious Oligarchy’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 September 1850, 1.
Reynolds, G.W.M. The Soldier’s Wife(London: John Dicks, 1853)
‘The Soldier’s Catechism’, in Curiosities of Street Literature, ed. by Charles Hindley, 2 vols (London: Reeves and Turner, 1871), I, p. 89