“Be a Roman Soldier”
“Be a Roman Soldier”
History, Historical Fiction, and National Identity
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines historical fiction for children set in antiquity, taking note of the genre’s intermediate status as a source of historical information that also shares the fictionality of myth and solicits the modern reader’s identification with characters from a different era. The relationship between historical fiction and national identity is explored through American novels set in the Roman world. Compared to works by British authors like Rudyard Kipling, which use Roman Britain as a context for themes of British identity and imperialism, works for American children by Reuben Wells, Paul Anderson, and Caroline Dale Snedeker make the scenes of Roman history into versions of such American settings as the new world of colonial exploration, the frontier, and the homeland of World War I.
In his 1907 essay collection, In a Nook with a Book, Frederic W. Macdonald (a Methodist minister and Rudyard Kipling’s maternal uncle) describes the childhood reading of “romance.”
A child’s adventures in the world of romance have infinite charm and reality. Long before he has seen the ocean, a mountain, a waterfall, or a foreign city, he has “travelled in the realms of gold.” He has sailed with Columbus and Captain Cook, and wintered with Franklin in the Arctic seas. He has ridden through the desert on a camel, and slept by Indian camp fires. He has seen Horatius buffeting the waves of yellow Tiber, and the Black Prince charging at Cressy. By the time I was twelve years old I knew the pyramids and the Colosseum, I had seen Quintus Curtius leap into the gulf, and Caesar fall by Pompey’s pillar. I had fought with the Crusaders, and retreated from Moscow with Napoleon.
For the child reader, stories of other times and places offer an alternative existence in which “charm” and “reality” coexist, because children, Macdonald goes on to say, do not distinguish between the sacred and the secular, the allegorical and the real:
All things are sacred, then, for “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” and all things are secular, if that means real and actual. Crusoe is guarded and guided by God as truly as were the patriarchs in their wanderings. The lions between which Christian passed, have hair, and teeth, and claws like those we have seen in the menagerie. All is real and all is imaginary.
(p.132) Macdonald’s description of his own early experience suggests that the allure of romance can be a path to historical knowledge, especially knowledge of individuals who play a significant role in national narratives of war, politics, and exploration.2 The books Macdonald read during his childhood in the 1840s and 1850s were mostly not intended for children: his allusion to “the yellow Tiber” points to the most famous of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, “Horatius at the Bridge,” and in the preceding paragraphs he recalls with nostalgia “Robinson Crusoe and the Pilgrim’s Progress…Don Quixote and the Arabian Nights, and Hans Andersen, and the Mutiny of the Bounty” (15).3 But writers for children who seek to convey historical information have regularly embraced the elements of romance that captivated Macdonald, soliciting their readers’ interest through a similar blend of the imaginary and the real and through a similar focus on exciting adventures and memorable individuals.
The resemblance between history and fiction is a commonplace of postmodern theory, which calls attention to the role of narrative and plotting in both forms and to the constructed or fictive quality of what we read as historical fact.4 Much of this theory is aimed at revealing the fictionality (shared with most forms of discourse) of contemporary historical writing that presents itself as rigorously factual and even scientific; in the earlier historical tradition, parallels between history and the novel are inescapable.5 When children are the intended audience, moreover, history’s reliance on fiction is more immediately evident: fictional elements are freely and overtly admitted in hopes of inspiring the pleasurable absorption that is often (as Macdonald’s reminiscence attests) seen as belonging particularly to the child reader.6 And so we find (p.133) many writers and educators in the century after Macdonald’s own childhood teaching children about the ancient world by integrating myths into accounts of historical events, foregrounding biographical narratives, and exploiting the appeal of historical fiction.
Familiar Friends: From Romance to History
Older handbooks such as Tooke’s Pantheon emphasize the importance of myth as a source of information ancillary to the reading of history, but in the wake of Hawthorne, Kingsley, and their successors, myth’s appeal to the child’s imagination played a role in its increased adoption as a curricular step for younger children towards the learning of ancient history, both in the United States and in Great Britain. In a chapter on Ancient History in the 1898 volume Work and Play in Girls’ Schools, edited by three British headmistresses,7 Mary Hanbidge recommends beginning with myth on the grounds that “With young children history proper is an impossibility, but an interest in the life of the past may be developed very early” (Beale, Soulsby, and Dove 1898: 161),8 and adds a further rationale that recalls Kingsley: “The mental development of the child epitomises that of the race, and in the record of a nation mythology precedes history” (161). The familiar fairy-tale comparison also recurs, both as a supportive parallel (through the apt pairing of two figures famous for losing a shoe) and as a possible source of criticism, which Hanbidge counters.
Quite little children know Jason, with his one sandal, as well as they do Cinderella, and Athene is a familiar friend whose picture they recognize. Cavillers may say that we are only teaching fairy tales, but the same children grown a little older see their Athene the central point of all the glories of Periclean Athens, and find themselves in a world they know.
(p.134) The numerous histories and collections of lives that begin with myth effectively treat myth as a part of history.9 At the same time, ancient history itself is sometimes treated almost as a collection of myths or fairy tales: yet another source of delightful stories such as Hawthorne’s Eustace Bright tells in response to his young companions’ requests. In the dedication to her Stories from Greek History (1907), Ethelwyn Lemon writes,
Do you remember that bright summer morning last year when we lay out on the lawn and read together the “Labours of Heracles,” and how you once interrupted to ask “if the tales were true?”
The tales in this little book are true, and beside the winter fire I wrote them, fancying that I still had your eager face beside me, heard still your eager demand for “another story.” Will you like these as well, I wonder?
Mary Macgregor’s introduction to The Story of Greece (1914), which turns to history after a few opening myths, sees ancient Greece itself as a “Wonderland”; a decade later, in 1922, Jeanette Rector Hodgdon entitles her book (“written in the hope of stimulating interest in history, literature, religion, and art”) The Enchanted Past: True Stories of the Lands Where Civilization Began.10 Like Lemon’s dedication, Hodgdon’s subtitle assimilates history to myth, presenting it as a set of entertaining, even magical tales, but with the added attraction of being true. The same delightful fusion of the charming and the real is invoked when writers explain to their child readers that certain myths have turned out (as a result of archaeological excavations) to correspond with actual events. In Greeks and Persians of Long Ago (1933), Louise Mohr invites her readers to take particular pleasure in such revelations:
Even cities with great palaces and crowded market places have been so nearly forgotten that men smile and say the bits of stories about them are only fairy tales. Of all the tales about long-ago people, few are more interesting than those in which half-forgotten people and places are proved to have been real.
(Mohr 1933: 15)
(p.135) Mohr’s primary example is the myth of Theseus in light of Evans’s discoveries at Knossos.11
For students who are “on the threshold of history,” Hanbidge recommends biography, specifically “biographies introductory to history”—that is, the stories of “men who make or mark a period” (Beale, Soulsby, and Dove 1898: 161–2). Biography, which is closely allied to fiction by its strong narrative arc, its interest in character and motivation, and its emphasis on individual action, had a long-established place in children’s reading by Hanbidge’s day. The prominence of biography is reflected in the works of such prolific nineteenth-century writers for children as the English novelist Charlotte Yonge (1823–1901) and Jacob Abbott (1803–79), the American author of the “Rollo” books (realistic stories following the development of a typical boy), as well as in the many versions of Plutarch for children.12 Yonge’s Book of Worthies self-consciously follows a practice dating back to “old times” in providing “glorious examples…on the way to deeds of virtue” (1869a: v); F. H. Weston’s selection from Plutarch’s lives is guided not only by their degree of interest for young readers but also by the clarity of their ethical teachings “either by example or contrast” (Weston 1900: v).13
Hanbidge and many of her contemporaries tend rather to see biography as offering the kind of intimate personal connection that Macdonald remembers from his reading and that is frequently associated with the experience of historical fiction. In making her recommendation she evokes a particular view of child development and emphasizes (p.136) (in accordance with that view) the importance of individual persons in the child’s experience: “since a child is naturally anthropomorphic, the personal element must be made the most prominent” (Beale, Soulsby, and Dove 1898: 161–2). Similarly, Alice Gardner (Friends of the Olden Time, 1891) seeks “to present before the eyes of children a few typical and significant characters in such way that their personality may be strongly realized and a living interest given to their history from the very first” (Gardner 1891: 3). John Haaren and A. B. Poland (Famous Men of Greece and Famous Men of Rome, 1904) spell out the crucial role of identification in this process, which is presented in a way that recalls the experience of fiction:
Experience has proven that in order to attract and hold the child’s attention each conspicuous feature of history presented to him should have an individual for its center. The child identifies himself with the personage presented. It is not Romulus or Hercules or Cæsar or Alexander that the child has in mind when he reads, but himself, acting under similar conditions.
(Haaren and Poland 1904: 5)
Romulus will be more than a source of interest to the child reader, he will be the child’s self.
When Hanbidge has students turn to “history proper” for the first time, she proceeds on the widespread assumption that children favor history that is shaped by storytelling, insisting on vividness and narrative continuity: “this must not be mere chronology, but a series of connected pictures of events” (Beale, Soulsby, and Dove 1898: 163). Some ancient histories for children aim to give the child reader not only a vivid image but also a kind of immersion in ancient reality, which at times is built into the historical narrative through fictional means. In Friends of the Olden Time, Alice Gardner asks her readers to imagine that they have fallen asleep and wake up in different places and at different times from 610 to 49 BCE. Her style is conversational (“Now that you are feeling exceedingly delighted and a little exhausted”) and she also engages her readers in conversation with the people they encounter:
But we ought to find out more about this great man, Pericles. Let us ask some questions of one of the gentlemen lounging in the porch. The Athenians are still, you see, fond of lounging.
(p.137) In another variation, which instead of bringing the child reader into the ancient world offers the reader an ancient child’s-eye view, Louise Mohr (Greeks and Persians of Long Ago, 1933) sets at the center of her account of ancient history from the Myceneans to Alexander a story (occupying several chapters) about the experiences of a fictional boy who lives in the Greek countryside. Imaginary children of the past may double as the audience for historical information, as in Norah MacKenzie’s 1931 Children of Athens, London, and Rome, edited by Catherine B. Firth (a textbook for ages 7 to 11), which tells the stories of fictional children who listen to accounts of the past and of current political events as they go about their everyday lives in fifth-century BCE Athens, early nineteenth-century London, and first-century BCE Rome.
Bringing the Past to Life? Historical Fiction
We might appropriately describe these last examples as rudimentary works of historical fiction, and thus as belonging to a genre which has long served as both pleasure reading and approved educational fare for children.15 Historical fiction, which (despite many earlier precedents) is often understood to begin with the works of Walter Scott (1771–1832), has been widely read by children from the outset.16 Historical fiction specifically for children has been steadily produced (with some ups and down in popularity) since the second half of the nineteenth century, when it played a prominent role in the work of Charlotte Yonge, G. A. Henty, and Alfred Church, and has been regularly encouraged by teachers and parents.17 Whether written ostensibly for adults or for (p.138) children, historical fiction shows up frequently in school libraries, on lists of appropriate reading, and as school prizes,18 and historical novels or short stories originally written for adults have sometimes been repackaged as children’s books.19
Historical fiction for children has been especially praised for giving earlier times a reality and a vividness history proper lacks,20 and for connecting child readers with other eras through what Kim Wilson has called “the privileged position of personal re-experience.”21 But the rather slippery concept of “reality” at play in such formulations elides the question of historical difference: the success of such works in making the past immediate and accessible may work against their frequent claims to truthfulness, accuracy, and effectiveness in conveying the very different conditions and spirit of another era. Recent critical discussion has called attention to tensions that are inherent in the genre of historical fiction as a whole but particularly pronounced in works for children.22 In particular, the premium placed on the modern child’s identification with historical figures as a point of entry into the past complicates the definition suggested by Georg Lukács’s still-influential argument that the genre begins with Scott because his work for the first time gives us “the specifically historical, that is, the derivation of the (p.139) individuality of characters from the historical peculiarity of their age.”23 There is a potential contradiction in what John Stephens cites as two of the standard “prescriptive, evaluative criteria for children’s historical fiction”: “Characters must be credible and invite reader-identification,” and “Readers should feel they have learned more about a time and a place through the illusion that they have experienced them vicariously.”24
The demand for characters in whom readers can see themselves inevitably introduces a present-day perspective and fosters forms of anachronism that extend beyond the circumstances, motivations, and emotional valences of individuals to include contemporary social values and political ideologies—which may be reinforced even as they draw the reader into another period.25 In the case of works set in eras as far removed from their presumed audience in time and space as Greco-Roman antiquity, the distant past may be brought closer to home by assimilation to the more recent past of the reader’s own culture. Yet, as the past undergoes multiple forms of identification with the here and now, a contrast between the two worlds is also established, whether that contrast is drawn implicitly or signaled explicitly by various modes of defamiliarization, by an implied judgment of relative merit, or by direct authorial intervention or commentary.26 Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan identify this coexistence of assimilation and contrast as a constitutive feature of the genre when they note at the outset of their Reading History in Children’s Books that
historical books for children typically accommodate both a confidence in the essential continuity of human experience over time and an historicist insistence on the radical difference, and even inscrutability, of the past.27
Children’s historical fiction set in classical antiquity, like other historical fiction, may feature real historical characters treated with freedom of invention, invented characters in historical settings, or both (with the former often as secondary characters).28 It may focus on significant historical events (the Persian wars, the Catilinarian conspiracy, the invasion of Britain, the burning of Rome), but these historical settings often serve primarily as background for events in the lives of fictional characters in keeping with a general tendency, noted by John Stephens, for children’s historical fiction to “displace macro-scale historical events into micro-stories of human relationships.”29 This is in part because such works tend to feature young protagonists who are not yet major players in the events of their day, supplying their readers with fleshed-out second selves who facilitate the absorption into the past that Macdonald achieved by imagination alone. Both limited and liberated by the relative paucity of detailed evidence for historical events (and its virtual absence for the daily lives of ordinary people), historical novels set in the ancient world sometimes draw on myth and legend to extend the narrative reach of history and on the findings of archaeologists to supplement the historical record.30 But most novels set in the ancient world are broadly realistic, although they may include as part of the reality they depict divine or supernatural elements in which their characters believe.31 There are a few examples of time travel to or from the ancient world in (p.141) our period, but although these feature magic as the means of travel, the world to which the child characters travel (as in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet) or from which people travel to speak to them (as in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill) is itself for the most part non-magical. Plots vary considerably, from Victorian narratives of Christian suffering and conversion to the detective stories that become popular toward the middle of the twentieth century.32 Among the most common in the first half of the twentieth century (which will be our focus in this chapter and the next) are tales of war, military service, and adventure, stories in which the central character overcomes some obstacle or deals with some past loss, and other coming-of-age stories. Protagonists may be children but are more often adolescents or young adults, especially in the narratives of maturation and adventure that have tended at least until recently to dominate the genre, and romantic love occasionally plays a role.
In the rest of this chapter, we explore the connections between past and present constructed in historical fiction (from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth) set in Rome and its empire and variously directed to British and American children. In particular, we show how the different cultural contexts of these intended audiences lead to different visions of the Roman world and different ways of relating Roman history to the reader’s own national past. We begin with stories written by British authors for an audience of British children, but our ultimate focus will be the specifically American turn given to the treatment of ancient Rome in three novels written in the US between the two world wars.
Our Country Must Rule the World: Roman Past, British Present
In Lucius: the Adventures of a Roman Boy (1885), set in the first century BCE, A. J. Church describes a room in the villa in Arpinum, north of Rome, in which Lucius has grown up:
The apartment in which the household was collected was a long, low room, not unlike the kitchen of an old-fashioned English farmhouse. Hams and flitches of bacon hung from the rafters, and a great log of beech wood was burning cheerily in a large open fireplace. On the mantlepiece were quaint images of a highly antique appearance. These were the household gods, and were almost the only peculiar features of the room.
(Church 1960: 7)
Church’s cautious “not unlike” introduces a description that so subsumes the Roman room into an English room which is at once old-fashioned and paradigmatic that its only specifically Roman features are explicitly marked by their individuality, quaintness, and antiquity. Likeness serves as a foil for difference, and the reader’s world is both compared with and distanced from the Roman past. There is a similar ambivalence in a passage in G. G. Manville Fenn’s Marcus, the Young Centurion (1904), set in the same period. Fenn describes his protagonist as wearing “a loose, woolen, open-fronted garment, not very much unlike a tweed Norfolk jacket without pockets or buttons, very short in the sleeves” (Fenn 1904: 12). Fenn’s even more qualified “not very much unlike” and his radical alterations of the Norfolk jacket create doubt about the resemblance even as it is offered.
We find a particularly playful evocation of likeness and difference in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), in which figures from the English past are magically brought to present-day Sussex to tell their stories to two children, Dan and Una. One of the characters they meet is the young centurion Parnesius, a Roman whose family have lived in Britain for generations, and who is sent by the Emperor Maximus to serve on Hadrian’s Wall, governing the Picts and resisting attacks from the north by the “Winged Hats.” Here the Roman centurion Parnesius describes his own childhood in fourth-century Britain:
“Good families are very much alike. Mother would sit spinning of evenings while Aglaia read in her corner, and Father did accounts, and we four romped about the passages. When our noise grew too loud the Pater would say, ‘Less tumult! Less tumult! Have you never heard of a Father’s right over his children? He can slay them, my loves—slay them dead, and the Gods highly approve of the action!’ Then Mother would prim up her dear mouth over the wheel and answer: ‘H’m! I’m afraid there can’t be much of the Roman Father about you.’ Then the Pater would roll up his accounts, and say, ‘I’ll show you!’ And then—then, he’d be worse than any of us!” “Fathers can—if they like,” said Una, her eyes dancing. “Didn’t I say all good families are very much the same?”
(Kipling 1993: 86–7)
(p.143) Kipling’s narrator begins with a statement not only of likeness but of universality; as the passage continues, however, the child reader is offered a glimpse of the ancient Roman law of patria potestas, and the evocation of the Roman father’s distinctive powers is reinforced by the use of the Latin word for father. But though pater is Latin for father, “the Pater” is contemporary English colloquialism, and the father’s traditional right of life and death over his children has become a family joke, clearly recognizable as such to Parnesius’ modern audience within the text.
The traditional English farmhouse, the Norfolk jacket, and the reference to “the Pater” situate Rome in relation not only to the writer’s own day but specifically to England and an English readership, calling on points of comparison presumed (whether rightly or wrongly) to be part of the young reader’s everyday experience. Such parallels also extend to adult arenas of experience, especially warfare, which is prominent in accounts of Rome and its empire, bringing the romance of historical fiction to bear on a way of life that constitutes, for many readers of such books, their expected future. G. A. Henty’s 1892 novel Beric the Briton tells the story of a young Briton who has lived for some years among the Romans. Upon his return, he endeavors to teach his people the Roman way of fighting, in order to improve their ability to resist the imperial power; after the failure of Boadicea’s revolt, he spends time in Rome, where he is in turn a gladiator, Nero’s guard, and an outlaw. He marries a Roman woman, and eventually returns to Britain to lead his people under Rome’s rule, and become a Christian.33 In this passage, near the beginning of the novel, he is trying to introduce the Britons to Roman tactics, and encounters some difficulty:
The manoeuvres to be taught were not of a complicated nature. To form in fighting order six deep, and to move in column, were the principal points…When, however, having arranged them at first in a line two deep, Beric proceeded to explain how the spears were to be held, and in what order the movements were to be performed,—the exercise answering to the manual and platoon of modern days,—the tribesmen were unable to restrain their laughter…To men absolutely unaccustomed to order of any kind, but used only to fight each in the way that suited him best, these details appeared absolutely ludicrous.
(Henty 1892: 57)
(p.144) This passage incorporates a commonplace in historical fictions of the Roman Empire: the contrast between the Roman mode of fighting (both unified and orderly) and the mode of fighting of their less civilized antagonists, who are individually brave and skillful but incapable of obedience and cooperation. But even as Beric is explaining Roman warfare to his fellow Britons—to whom it appears strange and ridiculous—the narrator briefly intervenes to offer young readers a comparison with the military training of their own day. The reader is evidently expected to understand the analogy, since the expression “manual and platoon” goes quite unexplained.34 What’s more, the modern British reader, unlike the ancient Britons, is expected to find Roman practices familiar: the British army of the reader’s day is similarly trained, similarly unified, and similarly obedient to its commanders. Henty reinforces the analogy a little later when Beric divides his men into companies and appoints “sub-officers or sergeants” to serve under him (59); again, the narrative translates Roman practice (as adapted for Britons) into the language of the nineteenth-century British military.
The connection between past and present military service is subtler in Kipling’s “A Centurion of the Thirtieth,” the first of the three stories about Parnesius in Puck of Pook’s Hill. When the young centurion tells the children how he decided to join the army, Dan asks him whether he had to pass an exam (Kipling 1993: 89). This is at once a marker of difference and an anticipation of similarity: Parnesius did not, of course, have to pass an exam, but he is an ancient analogue to those who trained at Sandhurst in Kipling’s day and then served as junior commissioned officers in the army. Parnesius learns his “foot-drill,” and then serves as a “probationer, waiting for a command” and training “a handful—and they were a handful!—of Gauls and Iberians” until (in part through his father’s influence) he is made centurion (90–1).35 In what follows he offers his listeners both the unfamiliar specifics of Roman military practice (how soldiers march, what they eat, how they carry shield and spear) and some apparently universal truths about military service (“a man doesn’t forget his first march,” 95). Parnesius’ listeners, Dan (p.145) and Una, who figure the reader within the text, do not always understand what he is telling them, but Dan, as a boy with the possibility of military life before him, has an intuitive grasp of Parnesius’ reactions to events that Una lacks (101).
In fictions like Kipling’s and Fenn’s (in which the young Marcus, accompanied by an elderly veteran named Serge, joins Caesar’s army in Gaul against his father’s orders), military life is typically presented through the eyes of the young soldier, and thus obviously serves the purposes of the coming-of-age story. But the way in which writers represent the historical context of warfare also suggests comparisons with the larger historical and political context of writer and reader. Parnesius and his friend Pertinax are—in their comradeship, in their loyalty (even to a leader of questionable judgment), in their understanding of those they rule—like the best of young British officers serving the Empire in Kipling’s tales of India, a link made perhaps most clearly by the poem “A British-Roman Song” that precedes the second of the three stories, and addresses Rome:
- Strong heart with triple armour bound,
- Beat strongly, for the life-blood runs,
- Age after Age, the Empire round—
- In us thy sons,
- Who, distant from the Seven Hills,
- Loving and serving much, require,
- Thee,—thee to guard ’gainst home-born ills,
- The Imperial Fire.
The ending of Fenn’s Marcus, the Young Centurion, in stating Rome’s commitment to foreign rule and the cost of that commitment, also evokes Britain’s imperial mission and the self-sacrifice of her soldiers. Warfare has its horrors as well as its moments of glory, but for the “old warrior” Serge, “our country must rule the world…And give up the bravest and the best of her sons to fight her cause!” (Fenn 1904: 392).
(p.146) The connection between ancient Rome and imperial Britain readers encounter in Henty, Kipling, and Fenn had become something of a commonplace by the later nineteenth century.37 In Henty and Kipling, however, another parallel is also at work, one between modern Britain and its forerunner, the Britain of Beric and Parnesius. Because the period and place of Roman rule in Britain are part of British history as well as of Roman history, Roman Britain is a particularly frequent setting for historical novels for British children. Other examples are plentiful, in our period and afterwards, and even fictions that have little to do with Britain, like Amyot Sagon’s Under the Roman Eagles (1907), Ioreth Evans’s Gadget City (1944), and Geoffrey Trease’s Word to Caesar (1955), may start in Britain, or feature a token British character, such as the faithful British (and Christian) slave in Marjory Bruce’s Maro the Lion-Keeper (1925).38
Such fictions, whether written in the colonial period or in its immediate aftermath, seek to negotiate for the child reader a dual identification: with ancient Britain, conceived of as the ancestor of modern Britain and like modern Britain given to resisting would-be conquerors from across the channel; and with the Roman Empire, conceived of as the prototype of the British Empire, and like the British Empire seeking to impose the benign rule of law on a disorderly aboriginal people.39 Henty’s Roman-educated hero in Beric the Briton first seeks to use Roman military methods in support of his people’s liberation, but in the end makes his peace with the Roman rule he perceives as superior; in Lydia Eliott’s Ceva of the Caradocs, published sixty years later, the (p.147) heroine wonders if it is “awful of [her]…to be glad that the Romans have made Britain a part of their marvelous Empire” (Eliott 1953: 9).40 The young Romans of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rosemary Sutcliff’s many novels of Roman Britain, while enforcing Rome’s rule and recognizing Rome as the source of civilization, also recognize the depth of their attachment to Britain, their home in some instances for many generations.41 In A. J. Church’s The Count of the Saxon Shore, Marion Mattingly’s Marcus the Briton, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers, shifting alliances among Romans (typically of mixed ancestry) and Britons (some Romanized, some not) work to ward off new threats from Britain in the context of Roman’s weakened power but persistent identification with the forces of civilization.
These texts envision a primary audience of British children who will see their own country both in the geographical space of ancient Britain and in the imperial power that rules it. E. Nesbit, whose novels for children both satirize and endorse her characters’ patriotism, plays with this dual perspective in the Story of the Amulet, a novel of time travel, in a chapter in which the four protagonists, having traveled back to Roman Britain, then meet Julius Caesar on the eve of his invasion. Eager to save Britain, the older children play down its value as a prize, but the youngest, Jane, angry at being dismissed by Caesar as a barbarian, gives such an account of the glories of modern Britain (including its imperial claim to be, in Jane’s confused version, “the country where the sun never sets”) that Caesar makes up his mind to invade, if only out of curiosity, while acknowledging that if what he has heard (or dreamt) is true, “a hundred legions will not suffice” to conquer Britain (Nesbit 1959: 189, 193).42
The depiction of Rome in children’s fiction is further complicated in works written in the context of the two world wars, where much of the action occurred in terrain fought over by the Romans, who might be (p.148) variously identified with modern counterparts.43 In I. O. Evans’s Gadget City, a work for young readers published in 1944, Rome stands for the German invader. The novel is set primarily in Alexandria, where the hero, a “West Briton” named Morgan, works as a slave in the Museum, (here depicted as an institute for advanced scientific and technological research). The book opens with his capture in battle against the invading Romans, described in the language of World War II, with Britain in part assimilated to continental Europe:
Thus our ancestors, nearly two thousand years ago, faced the blitzkrieg which the Romans launched against them, and which had already conquered the greater part of their island home. They were used to the idea that the greater part of the country formed a vast occupied zone. They were proud that their tribe, by fierce guerilla war in the mountains and forests, had kept their own region free. But now the Romans were advancing upon the Unoccupied Zone with an air of coming to conquer it at last. Streams of refugees fled before them, spreading tales of the most horrible atrocities. Above all, the refugees had spread rumours, all the more alarming because of their vagueness, of the dread Secret Weapon which had routed the United Nations of Britain at the battle of the River Thames.
(Evans 1944: 10–11)
The Weapon in question proves to be an elephant, but when Morgan is captured he finds himself in a “concentration camp” before being sold as a galley slave and traveling to the Gadget City of the title.
In Allen Seaby’s The Ninth Legion (1943), however, terms like “staff officers” and “military policeman” (as in Henty) inevitably identify the legionaries with British soldiers, in spite of the book’s plentiful details about Roman military life. This does not mean that the ancient Britons are here equated with Germans; the British perspective is given equal weight and equal sympathy, and the only indication of the ongoing conflict is a paratextual one: the stamp that declares the book was produced in keeping with the “war economy standard.” A more striking contrast with Gadget City’s vision of the Romans as Germans may be found in a contemporary American novel, Jay Williams’s The Counterfeit African (1944), set not in Roman Britain but during Marius’ campaign against Jugurtha. In his introduction, the author cites “the African campaign” as the testing ground for Marius’s reorganization of the (p.149) “army of farmers” into “an army of professional fighting men” (Williams 1944: iii). To make the nature of this army clearer “to modern eyes,” he uses contemporary military terminology (iv), and in this passage he clearly expects his young readers to catch an echo of the war currently in progress:
“Go on,” Marius said softly. “What are they saying in Rome?”
“They’re wondering why you haven’t yet captured Jugurtha as you promised.”
“So?” Marius flung himself into the camp chair and took his chin in his fist. “I almost had him near Cirta,” he mused. “But the Desert Fox—that’s what my boys call him—got away. He’s a slippery one…”
In giving Jugurtha the nickname of General Rommel, Williams recalls to his readers the recently concluded North African campaign of World War II, another testing ground and turning point. Here, then, it is Rome’s enemies that are identified with the Germans, while the Romans recall the Allied forces. There are, however, indications that Williams expects his American readers to think of the Romans primarily as Americans: the emphasis is not on imperial ambitions but on “the cause of the plebeians” (16); the reference to Marius’ “army of farmers” recalls as well a treasured trope of the American Revolution; and in assigning modern terms to ancient army officers Williams refers to “our armies.” He concludes by thanking “Staff Sergeant Melvin Hess of the 260th Infantry Regiment for making it possible…to finish this book while on active duty” (iii–iv).44
Citizen Soldiers and Pioneers: Roman Past, American Past
As this last example suggests, historical novels written in the United States, with its lack of a direct historical connection to the Roman Empire and its physical distance from the scenes of Roman history, offer different patterns of identification.45 The American tenor of such works is (p.150) especially pronounced in books written between the two world wars, a period that (as discussed in Chapter 3) saw a striking increase in the number of children’s books published in the US and a renewed concern with the development of a specifically American body of children’s literature. This literature celebrated and sought to inculcate definitive American values, particularly democracy, freedom, initiative, and self-reliance, which were regularly identified with the country’s pioneer past, and which we find variously accommodated in works with Roman settings.46
Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Reuben F. Wells presents his With Caesar’s Legions: The Adventures of Two Roman Youths in the Conquest of Gaul (1923) as a pleasurable aid to the study of Latin and Roman history, expressing the hope that it will be “of value to those who are reading Caesar in school,” for whom “the difficulty of translation” often impedes “a proper appreciation of the interest of the story” (8–9); at the same time, however, he refigures Rome’s conquest of Gaul in terms of America’s recent intervention in Europe.47 In its general outline, the book represents a type familiar from Henty and many others: a tale of adolescent achievement and ultimate recognition by an admired leader in a historical context.48 Two young cousins join Caesar’s army, demonstrate their prowess, bravery, and cleverness, and come to the attention of Caesar. The author provides copious information about Roman military life and training, notes the continued importance of Caesar’s tactics and includes comparisons with the military of his reader’s day (“The cohort of Caesar’s time corresponded very closely to (p.151) the modern company,” 9). But here the point of reference is not British but American.
Wells prepares his reader (or perhaps his reader’s parents and teachers) in his introduction:
Another struggle ended only a few years ago on the same fields on which Caesar and his legionaries fought, a struggle that has some striking points of similarity to the former one. In the first century before the birth of Christ, as in the years from 1914 on, a great democracy fought with its allies to defend the latter’s homeland and people from aggression. In both cases an invasion was threatened which, if not checked, would have brought destruction of property, the imposition of tribute, and the virtual enslavement of the people. In the World War more than one democracy was involved, and the fighting was on a far larger scale. In that, as in the campaigns with which this tale is concerned, the struggle ended with a host of threatening invaders driven back across the Rhine.
Rome here resembles America, not as an imperial power, but as a democracy coming to the aid of European allies.49 And although the two central characters, whose grandfather is a veteran of Marius’ army, have been raised on stories of the building of Rome’s empire, the emphasis in these stories is on the Roman legionaries as “citizen-soldiers,” a term that evokes not only the idealized soldier of the Roman Republic and the conscripts and volunteers of World War I but the citizen-soldiers of the American Revolution. Wells further links these three historical moments when the legionary with whom the boys seek to enlist remarks that “A new Marius has come in our new leader, Caesar, I think, and the rights of the people will be restored. That is why I have rejoined the army” (32). Like “citizen-soldiers,” “the rights of the people” evokes both the foundational values of the United States (themselves in part derived from an idealized vision of Rome), and the American War of Independence, recalled during World War I in such moments as General Pershing’s visit, on July 14, 1917, to the tomb of Lafayette.50
Wells’s narrative further develops the parallel between Roman citizen-soldiers and American enlistees by his depiction of his small-town protagonists, one the son of a farmer and the other of a merchant. (p.152) Their eagerness to join the legion they encounter at the outset of the novel is typical not only of the standard boy hero of adventure stories but also of the young American envisioned by World War I recruiting posters, eager to “see the world,” and susceptible to promises of adventure and exotic travel. Titus and Justin “feel the thrill of tales of war,” and when the legionary says “You want to join the army and fight, eh?” Julius replies, “Yes, and to travel…To go somewhere and see something. We can never amount to much in this cramped little town” (33).51
As the boys’ adventures unfold, the reader’s experience of this momentous struggle (where the Helvetians and Germans stand in for the German troops of 1914) is mediated through the day-to-day military life of two boys who seem little different from American small-town or farm boys.52 The two friends compete with each other (“I’ll bet you anything I can carry the pack as long as you can”) and exclaim over the “fun” of training like the heroes of any adventure story (47), but their particular circumstances evoke both the way of life and the self-reliant ethos of the American frontier.
“Money,” exclaimed Julius, his face falling. “Where can we get that? I haven’t any.” “Never mind,” replied Titus. “I have some of my own with me, enough for us both. My father let me have all the pelts I got from the traps last winter, and I sold them for a good price the other day in town.”
Wells incorporates a few suggestions of earlier American types, such as the revolutionary citizen-soldier and the fur-trapping frontiersman, into a narrative that retells ancient history mostly in terms of recent events. We find a more sustained mapping of Roman history onto the American past in two novels that are partly set in Roman Britain: Paul Anderson’s Swords in the North (1935) and Caroline Dale Snedeker’s The White Isle (1940). In these books, Britain becomes a version of the New World and the American frontier in narratives that reflect American concerns with exploration, expansion, and the life of the pioneer; through this layering (p.153) of classical and national history, the Roman setting becomes both more familiar and better suited to the promotion of American values. As Roman Britain echoes, not just twentieth-century America, but also twentieth-century America’s construction of the American past, Roman history is made to teach the same lessons that American history does—and America, as at many other junctures and in many other ways, rewrites the history of Britain as its own.
Swords in the North is one of five historical novels for children (or what we would now call young adults) set in Rome, Roman Gaul, and Britain during the first century BCE, and linked by shared characters (both historical and fictional), which Anderson (1880–1956) published between 1929 and 1939. These fall into a familiar “boys’ story” mode, with central characters who are fighters (if thoughtful ones), who form strong bonds of friendship with other young men, and who are unfailingly loyal to the leaders they choose.53 His stories reflect a familiar tension between admiration of Rome and sympathy for those freedom-loving peoples subjugated or enslaved by Rome. In With the Eagles (1929), a young Gaul enlists in Caesar’s legions, while in For Freedom and for Gaul (1931), a friend of his joins Vercingetorix; the author declares his own even-handedness by dedicating each book in admiring terms to the general it features.
When Anderson shifts his focus from Roman Gaul to Roman Britain, we find a more overtly American turn in his narrative. This most distant of Roman provinces, instead of evoking the far-flung possessions of imperial Britain, recalls American myths of encounters with the New World,54 and Roman expansionism is recast as a version of manifest destiny and the settlement of the frontier. The American subtext first emerges in Anderson’s dedication to one of his own fictional characters, Tiberius Cornelius Rufus, the hero of his first book (A Slave of Catiline, 1930) and an influential presence in two others. Anderson represents (p.154) Tiberius as both a personification of Roman virtue and a figure for the ideal American:
Although a character of fiction, the son of Flava Rufus typifies so well the qualities of courage, high patriotism, inflexibility of purpose, and a noble and lofty ambition—the qualities which not only made Rome great but which have animated the entire Western world in its rise from barbarism—that it seems proper to inscribe this book to one who might well have been the ancestor of any true American: Tiberius Cornelius Rufus.
(Anderson 1935: v)
In spite of his complicated past, which incorporates many motifs familiar in historical fictions of the ancient world (he was shipwrecked, raised by poor fisher-folk, abducted by pirates, enslaved, and trained as a gladiator), Tiberius appears in this novel as a well-educated and well-to-do patrician with a philosophical bent, clearly reminiscent of the American Founding Fathers and, given that he is tall, red-headed, and a widower, perhaps especially to be identified with Thomas Jefferson.
Like Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, Tiberius is a slave-holder, and Anderson here confronts a fact of Roman life that is also a troublesome legacy of the American past and so requires careful handling for an American audience. Anderson’s approach to Roman slavery echoes the ameliorating treatment of American plantation life found in children’s books of the 1920s and 1930s, although he admits more unease about the institution than some of his contemporaries.55 Tiberius is a benign and paternalistic master and beloved by his slaves, who are admirably loyal if less intelligent than their masters. The slaves may be beaten, but not severely; they take pride in their work; and praise from Tiberius or his mother affects them deeply (25–6).
It is Tiberius who turns the book’s narrator and hero, Gaius Aemilius Durus, from a dissolute young man about town to a hardy soldier in Julius Caesar’s legions and a person with the intelligence to understand—at least in retrospect—the “real” reason for Caesar’s conquests:
But Caesar’s great plan, to which all these were merely subsidiary, of aiding the regeneration of the Republic by allowing it to expand northward into the (p.155) wide-flung agricultural lands of the Aquitani, the Celtae, and the Belgae, that our burgesses might there find homes of a nature to encourage and develop the sturdy Roman virtues of their ancestors—that vast conception was beyond me, as it was beyond any save the giant brain that conceived it, that brain which dared to alter and bend to its will the course of history, the destiny of nations.
The Romans will settle and farm the “wide-flung agricultural lands” of Gaul as Americans settled the prairies; their intended regeneration of the Republic, in an alteration of Rome’s destiny, similarly recalls the association of American expansion with the spread of republican institutions in what was once called “manifest destiny.”56
We may find an echo of the controversy over slavery in the new territories of North America in Anderson’s concluding “Author’s Note,” which again emphasizes the agricultural basis of Roman expansion and declares that Caesar hoped to create “a class of free, land-loving, patriotic burgesses” in the “North” of the book’s title to compensate for the social impact of the “vast private estates operated with slave labor” (269). But Gaius himself, like Tiberius Rufus, is a slave owner, and Anderson’s attempts to palliate this fact by showing him as a principled and affectionate master only go so far. When Gaius faces financial ruin in the wake of his father’s death, his loyal slaves—whose loyalty is attributed both to good treatment and to the fact that they are for the most part “bred” not bought—offer their savings to him, but he informs them that his losses are too great, that he must sell all his estates, and, as an afterthought, that they must themselves be sold, including his “own personal vestiplica, Doris” and his “half-cousin” Pericles. But it is only when Gaius learns that he himself risks being sold into slavery to satisfy his creditors that he reacts with real horror: “I would fall on my sword first!” (49–52). Instead he leaves for the north to join Caesar’s army as a legionary.
Some chapters later, Gaius’ reaction to the mass enslavement of the rebellious Veneti displays the same mixture of feeling for and dismissal of the suffering of slaves. He has “always found something pitiful in this sale of captives,” but is sure that it is “a necessary evil; the world’s work could not be done without slaves, and this is the principal way to get them” (93). Furthermore, because he himself suggested the tactic that led to the defeat of the Veneti at sea, he receives as a reward a portion of the (p.156) proceeds of this sale. When, at the end of his adventures, Gaius returns and buys back his father’s house, the farm slaves are “too widely scattered to be found,” but this is evidently unimportant because “there was not the personal feeling towards them that there was towards the familia of the City.” As for the familia, on a “whim,” as he tells us, Gaius first tricks them into thinking they have been bought by someone else, and then reveals himself, to their “pathetic” delight. Gaius manages to achieve this repurchase with his “share from the sale of slaves or plunder,” carefully invested by Tiberius in his absence (266).
When Gaius follows Caesar to Britain, the idea of settlement as a renewal of the Republic gives way to another American narrative, the newcomer’s encounter with the natives who populate the new world. At the outset of Caesar’s first invasion, Gaius is captured by the British in a way that recalls the many captivity narratives of Europeans carried off by Native Americans.57 The first chapter of this section is entitled “My Captivity among the Britanni,” and as we read on, we find an obvious reminiscence of one of the earliest and most widely known of these narratives, the story of Captain John Smith. Gaius is about to be sacrificed by the Druids:
When we were five or six paces from the Stone [of Sacrifice], my eye was caught by a flurry in the crowd to my right, and as I turned my head I saw a girl struggling with two of the Druids, trying to get way from them, and calling out in her own language…she broke away, leaving part of her attire in the Druids’ clasp, and raced out to stand in front of me, laying her hand on my arm.
Brighde, the daughter of a chieftain of the Dumnonii, thus rescues Gaius by claiming him in marriage; the episode recalls, not only in its general outline, but in certain details of wording, the story of Pocahontas in Smith’s most fully embroidered version (the italics are ours):
Having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before (p.157) Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the king’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save his from death.
(Smith 1907: 101)
Brighde’s intervention is as successful as Pocahontas’; Gaius survives, and the two marry. When she takes him home to her own people, his father-in-law, convinced (like Henty’s Beric) of the superiority of Roman military discipline, makes Gaius his war-chief, and Gaius trains the Dumnonii in tactics and leads them into war against the Silures. At this point Anderson evokes another trope of the American frontier: the contrast between the friendly natives and their hostile counterparts, or (as in James Fenimore Cooper) between the noble and the ignoble savage. The description of the Silures in battle is reminiscent of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century descriptions of American Indians in its depiction of primitive ferocity, “uncouth cries,” and the practice of killing enemies by torture, and in its use of the adjective “fiendish”:58
The people [the Silurians] are fierce and most dangerous fighters; rude, filthy, unkempt of hair and of dress, clad mostly in skins of wild beasts, and armed with long, crooked knives, and their delight is to get in close and fight hand to hand. And I must admit that the sight of a wild-eyed band of them rushing into battle, brandishing their knives, yelling their uncouth cries, and eager for slaughter, is no encouraging spectacle even to one who had been through as many encounters as I had. To make matters worse, anyone who is wounded and left on the scene of battle is foredoomed to a slow and agonizing end, for the Silures take their women to war with them, and after a fight these harridans go over the field, rescue such of their own men as are not to grievously hurt, dispatch those who are beyond hope, and in fiendish joy whittle a wounded enemy to bits, as slowly and painfully as they can.
Gaius’ marriage and his role as war-chief do not however, however, lead to any real attachment to Britain. Even Brighde, though she ultimately wins his admiration and affection, initially strikes him as little more than a temporary pastime, inferior as she seems to “the better class of Roman (p.158) maids” (165). He agrees to lead the Dumnonii chiefly as a way of honing his leadership skills and gaining “insight into the Britannic mind” (200) and is careful to swear no allegiance to them, though he is briefly tempted by a vision of himself as ruler of Britain. After the defeat of the Silurians, he makes his way back to Caesar (accompanied—against his orders—by Brighde, in disguise as a boy) and ultimately to Rome, where he regains his family property. He continues to serve in the army, survives the civil wars, and ends the book “in the Golden Age of Augustus” (267–8), surrounded by his family. Brighde too survives and thrives in Rome, rather than dying an untimely death like Pocahontas in London, but she does so by a transformation into “a true Roman matron” whose grandchildren find it hard to believe she was ever anything else (268). In spite of the echo of manifest destiny in Caesar’s plans, Anderson represents the new world or frontier of Britain as a place where his hero can prove himself and enrich himself, like an explorer, rather than as a place to settle in or to transform, or one that might make a lasting mark on him. As Gaius enters adult life, Britain falls away as a site of significant history.
We find a very different vision in Caroline Dale Snedeker’s The White Isle: there Britain offers a permanent alternative to the traditional centers of the classical world. Snedeker’s several historical novels set in antiquity (which we discuss both in this chapter and in Chapter 5) offer appreciative portrayals of both Greece and Rome, with Greece as a poetry-loving culture that is largely superior to Rome and the Roman Republic as the locus of true Roman virtue and of the democratic impulse, manifest above all in the martyred Gracchi. But neither country allows the freedom that, in her construction of Roman Britain, Snedeker locates in the geographical periphery of colony and province, which she aligns with new institutions such as the Early Christian Church and new possibilities in the inner life of family and individual.
In The White Isle, Lavinia, a Roman girl jilted by an aristocratic cad because of her looks, travels to Britain, where her father (a lover of the old republican ways) has been posted as a provincial magistrate as a result of his opposition to Hadrian’s plans. After various vicissitudes, including abduction by hostile tribesmen and the loss of her brother with the Ninth Legion, Lavinia marries a young man who is half Roman, half British, and a Christian, and becomes a Christian herself. The novel, published in 1940, is in part a paean to Great Britain in its hour of peril; (p.159) the narrator evokes the white cliffs of Dover, Jane Austen’s Bath, and the stories of King Arthur. And Snedeker’s Romans, like Sutcliff’s and Kipling’s, eventually come to see themselves as belonging to Britain. But the narrative also clearly identifies Roman Britain with the American frontier, more settled than Anderson’s site of exploration and battle, but still rugged. It also evokes another of America’s founding myths: the New World as the site of political and religious freedom, a refuge for those like Lavinia’s republican father and her Christian husband, and a world with fewer constraints for women as well.
Where Anderson’s novel recalls captivity narratives and Cooper’s Deerslayer series, Snedeker’s recalls the frontier fiction for children that was especially popular in the period in which she was writing: her own earlier novel The Beckoning Road (1929) and the works of her contemporaries Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867–1957), author of a well-known series of novels based on her own family’s life as settlers and homesteaders in the American Middle West and West, published from 1932 to 1943, and Carol Ryrie Brink (1895–1981), a prolific writer whose Caddie Woodlawn (1935) and its sequel were based on her grandmother’s childhood experiences on the frontier. Written in the context of the Great Depression, such stories offered inspiring accounts of self-sufficiency and resilience as enduring American traits.59
Snedeker first invokes the idea of Britain as frontier when the family prepare to depart. Initially believing that Lavinia will marry and stay in Rome, her parents give her gifts:
Mother’s necklace of enamel she gave to Lavinia, for what use would that be in the frontier country of Britain? Father gave her the marble carved table with the lion heads on the legs, one of the few things saved when their fortune was lost so long ago.
(Snedeker 1956: 15)
In a fundamental trope of emigration narratives and frontier narratives of this period, it is the older members of the family (and particularly the women) who are most dubious about the enterprise; Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Ma yearns to stay in settled places, and Caddie Woodlawn’s mother imagines the lost splendors of England. Here Lavinia is eager for change, but her mother “[does] not share Lavinia’s hopefulness about (p.160) the new land” (33). The distance that promises safety to Lavinia simply makes her mother sad:
All would be safe there. Never in Britannia would she be asked to marry a man like Decimus. Never would there be the cruel Emperor nor the secret dangers of which even Father was afraid. In Britannia she could stay a girl for years and years. “Where is Britannia?” she asked. “Dear, it is far away—on the very edge of the world,” said Aurelia sadly.
The allusion to the family’s lost fortune is straight out of Little Women60 but also recalls Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn; in this narrative topos the fallen fortunes of the family make them a representative of thrifty American virtue in contrast to the Europe-derived decadence of their past.
“It’s a wicked shame!” continued Mrs. Woodlawn tartly. “All that land in England, that great stone house, even the peacocks—they ought to belong in part to your father, perhaps entirely. Who knows? Think, children, all of you might have been lords and ladies!” “No, no, Harriet,” said Mr. Woodlawn, growing grave again. “It was a hard struggle, but what I have in life I have earned with my own hands. I have done well, and I have an honest man’s honest pride.”
(Brink 1997: 86)
On Snedeker’s redrawn spiritual map, Rome now stands for Britain and Britain for America.61
Loss of fortune does not, however, involve the loss of the family slaves, who are expected to travel to Britain too, and here Snedeker shows her twentieth-century American sensibility by giving Lavinia a degree of awakened consciousness while also flagging it as anachronistic. Lavinia finds an elderly slave woman weeping at the prospect of separation from her son and given her own “new and tender mood” she feels that “even a slave must not be weeping,” especially one she loves as she loves Ino, and questions her. But Ino’s answer sets her off on a different train of thought about her own life, and Ino sees that “her little mistress had forgotten her” (26–7). Her sobs not only catch Lavinia’s attention afresh, but lead to an unaccustomed self-examination:
She stopped. She was ashamed of what she was about to say, that she did not know Ino could love her son. Pity, that feeling so unaccustomed to the Romans, took hold of Lavinia. She was almost angry for she saw no way out.
(p.161) When Ino suggests that she might be freed, Lavinia is initially horrified at such ingratitude. But “again that queer understanding [comes] over Lavinia” (28) and she takes the request to her father, who consents, and the manumission takes place—a ceremony that moves Lavinia and her mother to tears but that also assigns freed slaves a continuing role of comic relief: Ino’s son is there, “for of course he had heard. Slaves and freedmen hear everything” (30–1). And Ino herself is a figure of fun in the high felt “liberty cap.”
When the journey begins, the landscape and conditions of travel through Gaul and in Britain regularly suggest the American frontier. The cavalcade depicted on the endpapers of the volume features riders accompanying a Roman version of a covered wagon; and as if to signal her own anachronistic perspective once again, Snedeker comments on the anomaly of Father’s travelling on horseback:
For though Romans did not usually travel on horseback, Favonius, accustomed to long campaigns in foreign lands, preferred it.
Even more surprising, Lavinia soon acquires a pony and joins her father and brother on horseback; her father is dismayed, and declares, “We’re getting to be barbarians because we are away from Rome” (53). Lavinia’s displacement from Rome liberates her from the actual constraints of her ancient setting, and she enjoys a freedom that is the cherished possession of the American frontier children whom she increasingly resembles.
The family travel through Provence, “the flattest country Lavinia had ever seen,” where “the wiry silvery grass stretched away and away to where the sky came down” (104–5), and here we might be in the prairies of the American West as described by Snedeker’s contemporary Laura Ingalls Wilder: “On every side now the prairie stretched away empty to a far, clear skyline” (Wilder 1953: 62). They see herds of wild cattle and wild horses; they encounter a bear, and one evening, in another passage that seems to acknowledge the limits for Snedeker of historicity:
They came to the flickering light of the soldiers’ camp fire. The great kettle hanging over it, in soldier fashion—gypsy fashion—eternal human fashion.
(Snedeker 1956: 75)
After arriving in Britain, the family travel through miles and miles of unbroken forest and see more wild animals (including an elk); the occasional houses they pass are explicitly compared to the dwellings of (p.162) the American frontier, “rude wooden houses with peaked roof, log cabins, typical then of the frontier as they are today” (143). Throughout this journey, Lavinia relishes her newfound freedom and sense of self, but her mother’s reaction is that of the pioneer wife: “To her it was a homeless forest where she must try to create a home for her family” (133).
The home the family establish represents for Snedeker not only a pioneer outpost but a pre-industrial ideal:
Now, day by day, was the new home established in Britain—a home with those multitudinous interests and industries of which machines have robbed it. And so robbing they have destroyed a precious thing in the world. This home was self-sufficient—or almost so. It afforded occupation and creative work for everybody in it…
And in this home the family begin to enjoy the pleasures of frontier life:
October brought nutting parties for the young people, who went far into the woods, duly protected by their elders. Such gathering of food would have been called slave work in Rome. But here on this frontier of the Empire, life was more natural.
Not that slaves can be dispensed with. Soon after their arrival, Lavinia and her brother Marcus head to the market to find a cleaning woman, since the slave who had done that work was left behind in Rome. And here Snedeker’s implicit critique of ingrained Roman attitudes gives way to the unselfconscious introduction of the stereotypical Irish servant: “Slaves from Ivernia / Best in the land” (153). As Marcus and Lavinian contemplate a filthy young woman with blue eyes, the slave merchant declares, “That kind work like devil spirits. They come from an island west of Britannia. There’s nothing like ’em” (154). Buvinda joins the household and proves both a devoted servant and a source of comedy.
Under the auspices of a new and friendly governor, father and son happily join the Roman legionary forces to combat half-naked, painted “wild men” who “fight like wolves” (134); as in Anderson the description recalls familiar representations of Native Americans in frontier narratives.62 Lavinia continues to enjoy her freedom and the out-of-doors life (p.163) she never had in Rome, and even her mother ceases to miss Rome and declares, “we are Britons now” (187).
Snedeker’s vision of life on the frontier is already an idealized one: the life of these pioneers, its hardships little more than inconveniences, is natural, self-sufficient, and free of the constraints of the old world. But the last part of the book goes beyond such idealization to offer a genuinely utopian vision, as Lavinia and her mother are introduced to an idyllic Christian community in Avalonia (the Arthurian Avalon) and Lavinia falls in love with and marries one of its members. Here too, however, in its depiction of a loving and non-hierarchical communal existence, The White Isle draws on a vision of the American frontier, this time as the locus of pioneering utopian settlements like that of New Harmony, Indiana, founded by Snedeker’s great-grandfather Robert Owen, and described in detail by Snedeker both in two earlier novels (Seth Way, 1917, and The Beckoning Road, 1929) and in a non-fiction work (The Town of the Fearless, 1931). The utopianism of the setting further enables the element of romantic fantasy in The White Isle, as Lavinia, rescued from an unwanted old-world arranged marriage with a hateful suitor, falls in love almost at first sight with a young man whose open courtship and public displays of affection set the capstone on the freedoms of the new land.
As they reconceive the outpost of Empire that is Roman Britain as a version of America and the American frontier, Anderson and Snedeker offer us different versions of this new world, each appropriate to the time period of the story. Anderson’s novel, set at the time of Julius Caesar’s initial invasion of Britain, recalls the earlier days of European exploration and settlement in North America, although with a glance forward at the expansionism of manifest destiny; Snedeker’s, set in the Romanized Britain of Hadrian’s day, tends rather to invoke the movement of pioneers into the Midwest and West and the lives of these settlers.
A more significant difference may be found in the contrast noted earlier between the cyclical narrative of Swords in the North and the linear narrative of The White Isle. Gaius travels to Britain, fights, falls in love—and returns to Rome with his British wife, now a “true Roman matron.” Lavinia and her family come to see themselves as Britons, for whom return to Rome is neither possible nor desirable; indeed, the characteristically Roman experiences of exile by the emperor and appointment to provincial administration, both of which could be (p.164) expected to end in a return to Rome (as in Anderson’s plot), are here reconceived as a story of permanent emigration. The difference may partly be a function of the contrasting eras in American history the authors choose to evoke: Gaius is an invader and explorer, Lavinia a pioneer and settler. It also has something to do with the transformative role of Christianity—something from which there is no way back—in Snedeker’s novel. But the difference is, most crucially, a matter of gender—both of the characters and of the intended audience.
Anderson’s hero can go out into the world, reach manhood, show what he is capable of, and return to his place of origin, the Rome of which is he now a worthy citizen. For Snedeker, however, Rome (admirable as in some respects it is) allows women little freedom, little agency, and no choice in love. In order to offer her twentieth-century girl readers a central character in whom they can see themselves, she must remove her heroine from Rome and imagine for her a home at the margins, conceived of as a space of free development and romantic love.63 Thus, although Anderson’s story can be seen as a typical boy’s story in its deployment of the quest narrative, what we find here is at odds with a claim that is sometime made about boy’s stories as typically the site of linear progression and girl’s stories as involving circularity and a return home.64
Anderson seems to signal the problem posed by gender in his own resolution. As the story ends, Gaius’s grandchildren have been listening to the story of his adventures:
“It is difficult,” says one, when the tale ends, “to imagine Grandmother riding in armor with the Tenth Legion, or fighting with outlaws in the Great Forest of Anderida.” My wife smiles at me, and I press her hand. “None the less, she did,” I reply. “For all that your grandmother was born and grew to womanhood in the Island of the North, she has all the courage, all the virtues, of a true Roman matron. See to it that you are worthy of her.”
The question asked by this grandchild reveals that their grandmother’s adventures seem quite incompatible with her current manifestation as a (p.165) Roman matron. Brighde, tellingly, leaves it to her husband to reply; and his answer suggests that whatever her earlier life, it is as a Roman matron that she is to be honored and imitated by her descendants—and presumably admired by Anderson’s readers.65 Snedeker’s story, in contrast, turns its back on the Roman matron, has that matron turn her back on Rome, and offers its readers as model a girl of the Roman frontier, who recalls the modern pioneer heroines whom they were also encountering in the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Carol Ryrie Brink.
In Chapter 5, we investigate further the ancient girl heroines of historical fiction as they fulfill their intersecting (and sometimes conflicting) roles as representatives of a very different era and as potential other selves for modern girl readers. (p.166)
(2) Geoffrey Trease gives a similar account: “At Henty’s call I marched With Roberts to Pretoria, With the Allies to Pekin, With Kitchener in the Sudan and, I suppose, with almost every military expedition from Hannibal and his elephants onward” (Trease 1964: 19). Cf. Andrew Lang on “bookish children” who reenact what they read and on his own childhood play “as a Roman engineer, taking part in the siege of Jerusalem” (Lancelyn Green 1946: 8), and more recently Spufford 2002: 80 (“Be a Roman soldier, said a book by Rosemary Sutcliff”).
(3) The Mutiny of the Bounty was presumably Sir John Barrow’s account; Hans Andersen might be any of several collections available in English translation, including Andersen 1846a, 1846b, 1846c, 1846d, 1850.
(6) On the role of vignettes drawn from legend in history for children see Maxwell 2009: 240. History and biography for children are less likely to include the narrative markers Dorrit Cohn sees as characteristic of “a scrupulous historian” when going beyond documentary evidence (Cohn 1999: 118).
(7) Beale, Soulsby, and Dove 1898. The authors were all leading figures in women’s education, and Hanbidge herself was for three decades headmistress of the Central Foundation Girls’ School in London.
(8) Similarly, in their introduction to Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men (1901), Caroline and Samuel Harding note “the value of the old Greek stories as material of the cultivation of the child’s imagination and the development of the ethical perceptions” and cite “a report by the Committee of Ten appointed by the National Education Association” [of the United States] on “the necessity of basing the formal study of History on some sort of elementary studies in biography and mythology” (Harding and Harding 1906: iii).
(10) Corinne Spickelmire’s Stories of Hellas (1911) invites child readers to “sojourn a while in Hellas” and enjoy “glad golden days…wandering through shadowy grottoes or dancing with nymphs to the Pipes of Pan” (2).
(11) Cf. James Baikie (Peeps at Many Lands: Ancient Greece, 1920), who distinguishes the “fairy-tale” accretions of myth from a core that has “been proved, and that not many years ago, to be simple truth” (Baikie 2008: 13–14).
(12) See e.g. Kaufman 1884; Weston 1900; Gould 1910a, 1910b. An “insurance man,” questioned in the early 1930s about his reading, recalls: “It would be a very difficult matter for me to tell why, or exactly when, I became interested in the classics, but I presume it happened in this way. I was born and reared on a Kansas farm. When a boy a Carnegie Library was opened at Manhattan, about ten miles from my home. I used to bring a load of wood or produce to town, sell it, and then spend the remainder of the day at the free library. On one of my trips I found Plutarch’s Lives, took it home and, figuratively speaking, devoured it” (Compton 1935: 109). Abbott, who collaborated with his brother John on a series of biographies (“Makers of History”) for somewhat older readers (aged 15 to 25), includes a number of figures from Greco-Roman antiquity.
(13) Each volume of F. J. Gould’s The Children’s Plutarch (1910a, 1910b) provides a topic index largely devoted to specific virtues exemplified by the different lives. On moral education by example in ancient biography, see also Guerber 1896: 5.
(15) The standing of the historical novel has been both varied and contested, and critics have raised and continue to raise questions of definition, categorization, and terminology. For earlier discussions of the genre, see Saintsbury 1975, Matthews 1901, Lukács 1982; for several recent considerations of the relationship between history and fiction in the historical novel and of subtypes and terminology, see Maxwell 2009, Hamnett 2011, and the essays in Rethinking History 9/2–3 (2005), esp. those by White, Shaw, Slotkin, and Demos; cf. also Goldhill 2011: ch. 5.
(16) For instances of children reading Scott with their governesses or parents, see Fletcher 2008: 229, 231, 296; cf. Maxwell 2009: 254; on Scott and girls’ reading, see Flint 1993; on Scott as crossover fiction, Beckett 2009: 18.
(17) For a brief account of the development of historical fiction for children in Britain and the United States from the 19th through the late 20th century, see Rahn 1991; on Scott’s increasing identification with childhood reading and on “juvenile” historical fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its influence on subsequent adult historical fiction, see Maxwell 2009: ch. 5; for recent work on historical fiction for children, see esp. Collins and Graham 2001, Lucas 2003, Wilson 2011, Butler and O’Donovan 2012.
(18) In a 1902 bibliography of the genre, J. Nield remarks: “In the last year or two there has been an almost alarming influx in this department of Fiction, and teachers in schools, besides readers in general, may be glad to be saved a somewhat tedious investigation” (Nield 1911: 2). By contrast, Arbuthnot (1947: 397) warns against an excessive emphasis on the use of realistic historical fiction in connection with social studies units.
(19) For example, Caroline Dale Snedeker’s first book, The Coward of Thermopylae (1911), republished for children as The Spartan (1912), and the stories collected in Naomi Mitchison’s The Hostages, discussed in Chapter 5. Maxwell 2009 suggests that Mitchison’s historical novels for adults were themselves influenced by juvenile fiction and by “her own projects for classroom instruction” (260). On such rewriting and repackaging, see Beckett 2009: 61–83, 232–9.
(20) “…peoples, places, and problems seem almost as real to us as those we know today” (Arbuthnot 1947: 411); the child “comprehends [past times] not as interesting historical settings and events but as vibrant moments of immediate reality” (Jacobs 1961: 191; cf. Jacobs 1952).
(21) Wilson 2011: 3. Wilson cites Lukács 1982: 42: “What matters [in the historical novel] is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel, and act as they did in historical reality” (3).
(23) Lukács 1982: 19.
(24) Stephens 1992: 204. Although the second of these criteria “presumes that reader subjectivity is properly subordinated to a subject position inscribed within the text,” the first suggests that the subject position is in part determined by the needs of the reader and in particular by the criterion of identification (204–5).
(25) For critiques of the incorporation of modern beliefs and feelings in the interest of reader engagement, see Barnhouse 2000 and Wilson 2011; Butler and O’Donovan (2012: ch. 4) offer a thoughtful defense of anachronism and an argument for compromise, treating the tension between authenticity and anachronism on the analogy of foreignizing and domesticating approaches to translation.
(26) On defamiliarization, especially in linguistic register, see Stephens 1992: 218–27; on the presumption of progress between past and present, Wilson 2011. Goldhill notes that in Victorian historical fiction the narrative voice frequently draws attention to the distance between present and past (2011: 184–5), a practice that persisted in some works of children’s historical fiction into the first half of the 20th century.
(28) Some critics would distinguish between fictional history (which features real historical characters and events) and historical fiction (where the focus is on invented characters); see Goodman 2005. On Victorian historical fiction set in antiquity (including some works read by and written for children), see Goldhill 2011: chs. 5, 6; Vance 1997: ch. 9; on historical writing for children set in antiquity after 1950, see Butler and O’Donovan 2012: ch. 2.
(30) They may do both: Louise Lamprey’s Children of Ancient Greece (1924) and Erick Berry’s The Winged Girl of Knossos (1935) (discussed in Chapter 5) anticipate Mary Renault’s work in rewriting and rationalizing the legend of Theseus in light of the archeological discoveries on Crete. On Crete, cf. also Naomi Mitchison’s “The Prince” in Boys and Girls and Gods (1931a); for the use of myth and legend, see also Lamprey 1922; Crew 1927, 1928, 1929; Lancelyn Green 1959, 1961; Sprague 1947.
(31) In recent decades historical novels set in antiquity have played more freely with elements of fantasy. See the Epilogue and works cited there.
(32) On Christianity in Victorian historical fiction, see esp. Goldhill 2011: chs. 5, 6, and novels by Clarke (1890), Holt (1887), Leslie (2007a, b, c), Pollard (1892), Yonge (1890); for 20th-century novels in which Christianity plays an important role, see Bruce 1925, Mattingly 1928, Sagon 1907, Snedeker 1956, Malvern 1958, Speare 1961. For early examples of the mystery plot, see the novels of Jay Williams.
(35) Foot-drill was part of the regular Sandhurst training, and cadets were given probationary commands.
(36) On the analogy between Roman Britain and British India, see Rutherford 1964; Rivet 1976; Majeed 1999; Hingley 2000; Vasunia 2005; Roberts 2007, 2010; and works cited in these. For the view that Kipling’s Roman stories depict Rome as a problematic and disturbing imperial paradigm, see Adler 2015. On the issue of empire in Kipling’s work for children generally, see also Richards 1989, Kutzer 2000, Randall 2000, McBratney 2002.
(38) Examples include Church 1887; Gullick 1926; Mattingly 1928; Mitchison, “Maiden Castle” in Mitchison 1929; Seaby 1943; Eliott 1953; Treece 1954 and 1965; Sutcliff 1954, 1955, 1993, 1959, 1961, 1965. On treatments of Roman Britain from 1950 to the early 21st century, and especially the representation of Roman Britain as a response to imperial and post-imperial Britain and the shift to a more critical perspective on Rome in recent fiction, see Butler and Donovan 2012: ch. 2. See also Butler 2015, and on the 1950s comic strip “Wulf the Briton,” Keen 2015.
(39) See Hingley 2000: pt 2, chs. 5–8 on the gradual replacement of what he calls the Teutonic myth (the English as fundamentally Saxon, with the Roman past essentially lost and the British killed or driven out) by an understanding of Englishness as including elements of both the British (admirable in their resistance to the Romans) and the Romans (admirable for the culture they succeeded in transmitting to and through the British).
(44) For an American novel whose paratextual material identifies Rome with America’s enemies, see Alfred Powers’s Hannibal’s Elephants (1944); the jacket blurb urges readers to buy war bonds and declares that “If the Carthaginians had done the equivalent” Rome would never have become “dictator of humankind” and all history since would have been “less dark.”
(45) An earlier version of part of this section appeared in “Armies of Children: War and Peace, History and Myth in Children’s Books After World War One,” in K. Marciniak (ed.), 2016. Our Mythical Childhood…: The Classics and Literature for Children and Young Adults. Leiden: Brill. In the US as in Britain, the earlier sense of connection to republican Rome was to some extent displaced in the course of the 19th century; “Invocations of imperial Rome increased as America itself became a world empire by the 1890s, evoking military and cultural might rather than arcadian republican simplicity” (Winterer 2002: 143). But in the period we focus on, American expansionism is envisioned in children’s books less as an imperial enterprise than as a pioneering movement inflected by democratic ideals (Schmidt 2013).
(50) Farwell 1999: 93–4; Keene 2003: 107–8. (Note that Keene regularly refers to the (largely conscripted) armed forces of World War I as citizen-soldiers and that Farwell’s last chapter is entitled “Return of the Legions.”)
(51) Cf. the popular 1918 song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?” (words by Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis, music by Walter Donaldson). Motives for under-age enlistment in Britain during World War I included “boredom with work,” “a longing for adventure” (Van Emden 2005: 3), and “an opportunity to travel” (Reynolds 2009: 256).
(52) There were evidently more farmers among American soldiers in World War I than members of any other occupational group (Farwell 1999: 62), although these were mostly conscripts, unlike Wells’s enthusiastic enlistees (Keene 2003: 18–19).
(53) There is copious evidence that these “boys’ stories” were regularly read by girls; see for example on the popularity of “boys’” historical fiction and of Henty in particular among girl readers around the turn of the 20th century, Mitchell 1995: 111–15; cf. Reynolds 1990: 93, Flint 1993: 154–6. We also find the same story-type in writers like Rosemary Sutcliff who are not aiming specifically at a male readership.
(54) These are themselves based in part on the accounts of English explorers; indeed, the authors of early English accounts of America “likened themselves and the English enterprise in America to the Romans’ invasion of England” (Kupperman 2000: 30).
(55) On the depiction of slavery in American children’s books of the 1920s and 1930s, see Connolly 2013: 134–40; Schmidt 2013: 66–71. In some cases, the condition of slavery is elided as slave characters are labeled “servants,” whose position can then be portrayed as freely chosen out of a sense of “belonging.” Some positive portrayals of plantation life from this period are not only ameliorating but actually nostalgic.
(57) The identification of ancient Britons with Native Americans has a long history in British and European thought; on different aspect of this comparison, see Kupperman 2000: 28–30, 59, 60–1, 94, 107, 113, 224–5; Hoselitz 2007: 31–3. In his preface to The Eagles Have Flown, Treece evokes by association the Indian of popular culture when he tells his reader (in italics): “Please don’t read this as a ‘history’ book! It is an adventure story, about people rather like ourselves—all except those who were more like Apache Indians and gangsters!” (Treece 1965: 9).
(58) In his 1922 biography of Daniel Boone, Stewart Edward White cites competing views of “the Indian” as “a fiend incarnate” and as “the ‘noble redman’”; he himself ascribes to “the Indians” both noble characteristics and “a deep ingrained racial cruelty,” including the routine practice of torture (82, 93). On the representation of Native Americans in American children’s books of the 1920s and 1930s, see Schmidt 2013: 61–6; on persistent motifs in “the idea of the Indian,” Berkhofer 1978.
(60) Alcott 1947: 43.
(61) Britain’s redescription as early America effects a kind of renewal, which might be compared to the premise of St. David’s Walks Again, a 1928 novel in which an American boy with an enterprising spirit and “the pluck of American pioneers” brings new life and prosperity to a sleepy, demoralized Cornish village (MacLeod 1995: 159–61).
(62) Cf. Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie and Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, which depict white settlers’ fear of Native Americans and include both stereotypical descriptions and distinctions between “good Indians” and others.
(64) See Nikolajeva 1996: 124–6, though she also sees the circular journey as in general fundamental to children’s literature, 79–80. On the “quest romance” in boys’ adventure stories, see Ferrall and Jackson 2010: ch. 2.