Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Victorian Heroics - plus a bit of maundering about records
In this BBC report a man called Nick Hancock anticipates the difficulties of spending 60 days on Rockall - to which the obvious answer would seem to be: well, don't do it.

I've never been able to sympathize much with the urge to put oneself (and one's eventual rescuers) in danger just for the sake of it, though clearly it excites admiration in many. However, I was prompted by something the reporter said on this clip to wonder about the cultural history of this kind of exploit: "In Victorian times, just visiting Rockall was said to be the epitome of heroism." That sounded a false note to me - but should it have? I can imagine a Victorian calling a visit to Rockall brave, but "heroic"? The Victorian version of that word has an overtone of nobility and service to others, to my mind, distinct from because-it's-there adventuring.

I'm far from certain about this, though. I try out a few test cases in my mind, running them through my patented "Victorian Mindset Filter":

Grace Darling and her father. They are uncontroversially heroic, showing extreme bravery and saving lives in the process. If they had merely been trying to break the night-time rowing endurance record? Not so much.

Sir John Franklin. Doomed, of course - but still fairly heroic because doomed in an attempt to find the Northwest Passage - a solid geopolitical objective that would have benefited his country had he succeeded.

The Light Brigade. Not only doomed, but doomed in a futile action; but heroic nonetheless because they acted from devotion to duty rather than reckless bravado.


Refining this a bit: Victorian heroism should not be entirely selfish; but while altruism is no doubt the ideal it is acceptable to be motivated in part by a desire for fame and glory. Indeed, desire for fame is a legitimate incentive within the classical, Germanic and Celtic heroic traditions alike. It goes clean against the Sermon on the Mount, which is no doubt why Milton calls it "the last infirmity of noble mind" - but he is praising with faint damns, there. Still, fame mustn't be the only incentive for an act otherwise pointless or contemptible. Herostratus is not admired, and no more are famous-for-being-famous celebrities (a solidly mid-Victorian word, in that sense - not a twentieth-century one as one might imagine).

It's when we get to the twentieth century though that the concept of heroism gloops out into an untrammeled glory fest - a race to get to the ends of the earth or the top of Everest for no other reason than to say that you did it first, or quickest, or with the least equipment. Are such people more likely to be called heroic now than of yore? Such feats may wear the dress of patriotism, scientific research or charity fundraising, but to what degree are these the real motivations, and what effect do they have on our conception of them as heroic or otherwise? Scott, for example, was certainly seen in his own time as a hero, and still is by many. In what exactly did the estimate of heroism consist, either now or then?

It's in the twentieth century, as far as I can see, that people become obsessed with superlatives for their own sake: the fastest, longest, highest, first, and so on. The Guinness Book of Records is published first in 1951: how did previous generations get by without it? Perhaps they didn't find that sort of thing as fascinating, or perhaps they did but wrote about them piecemeal in publications such as almanacs? Here's where I hit the buffers of ignorance - but I'd be interested to know at what point Wisden, for example (first pub. 1864) started noting records in the Guinness sense rather than merely keeping records of individual matches; or when people started thinking of the World Record for running a certain distance rather than who won a particular race. That seems to me an interesting epistemic shift. It was facilitated no doubt by technology (accurate chronometers) and organization (the creation of events such as the Olympics with the authority to declare results and have them universally accepted), but were people just waiting for that kind of opportunity, or did its arrival signal the creation of a whole new way of thinking about achievement, in absolute rather than relative terms?

I was impressed when I first heard about people who swim the Channel, until I discovered that they do it with a pacing boat alongside. WTF? It's one thing to swim because you don't have a boat, or want to see if you can do it without one, but if you have a boat right with you, then a sane person would just get in the boat.

Well, quite! We're clearly cut from the wrong kind of heroic cloth. Leander had a good reason (or one that seemed good to him); Lord Byron was just showing off.

Byron may have been showing off, but that puts him in the second category, not the third. At least he didn't have somebody rowing alongside him in a pacing boat.

True enough.

Grace Darling was a real person? I did not know that!

It's true! And so was Greyfriars Bobby (a real dog, anyway). The Victorians were good at translating people (and dogs) into the realm of demi-myth.

I knew about Greyfriars Bobby because there was a Futurama episode based on him! I only knew Grace Darling from the song though. Lal and Norma Waterson recorded it.

Jessica Mitford apparently used to sing it at parties. I do wish I could have heard her.

The way she sang, you probably don't.

Dr John Rae- the man who discovered what had actually become of the Franklin expidition and opened up much of Canada. Also inventor of the first practical inflatable boat and willing to learn from and respect local people He was ostracised by polite Victorian society because he said the things Lady Franklin and her supporters did not want to hear (the cannibalism and insanity and such). Still fondly remembered in his Orkney home and Canada and unheard of here on the British mainland.

Bravery? Hmmm..............

Edited at 2013-05-17 06:55 pm (UTC)

Well, not *just* for saying things Lady Franklin didn't want to hear. There was also the major matter of willingness to learn from and respect local people, not dressing in a manner befitting a British gentleman while in the High Arctic, etc...

He was also from fairly humble roots in Orkney which further counted against him. He does get a very fine tomb in Kirkwall Cathedral, however!

Edited at 2013-05-20 11:38 am (UTC)

You must bear in mind that my indented assessment was passed through the patented "Victorian Mindset Filter", and doesn't necessarily reflect the views of your humble servant!

"Wounds have no intrinsic value of their own; it is the cause that dignifies them, not their size. William Tell is rightly one of the heroes of the world; but what should we think of the members of a club of fathers, formed with the object of meeting twice a week to shoot apples from their sons' heads with cross-bows?"

J K Jerome, who later demonstrated what courage was for by driving an ambulance on the Western Front.

That's a brilliant quotation - and much more concise than my rambling entry!

From Three Men on the Bummel; his description of a German student duel. Tis here.

I think I've seen mention of Charlotte Yonge on your LJ before? There's quite a lengthy discussion on the desire for fame in "The Daisy Chain".

I've flicked through that lengthy volume, but can't say I've read it. I find desire for fame interesting because it's one of those areas where different moral codes - both respected in Victorian society - conflict.

My scale is closer to the Victorian than one which calls bravado "heroism", but not entirely. For me the futility of the Light Brigade drowns out everything else. But in the eyes of those who hand out declarations of heroism, they're all the more heroic because the futility of the charge proves that their devotion to duty was unsullied by any baser motive of accomplishing anything worthwhile thereby.

That's not just a Victorian idea. It ranges all the way from the Battle of Malden to Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda", that the more futile and indeed pointless the action, the more heroic performing it thereby becomes.

Yes indeed - and those are good supplementary examples. Is it a particularly English/Germanic point of view, I wonder? Young Casabianca was not British, but it was the British who idolized him.

I had a professor tell me once that the Anglo-Saxon poems tended to celebrate glory in defeat, but that the Norse ones were much more about yay, victory. I said it would be interesting if there were a Norse version of the Battle of Maldon from the other side's point of view.

Yes, it would! (Not really equivalent in any shape or form, but that's reminded me of the existence of Graves's "The Persian Version", which is well worth a look if you don't already know it.)

Thank you! Very Byron-y irony.

I'm finding on consideration that Monty Python is providing me with fine examples of my points. For my first comment, see Ron Obvious; for my latest, see the regiment of suicidal Scotsmen.

To say nothing of Beyond the Fringe:


Perhaps just me, but I cringe inwardly every time the charity Help For Heroes is mentioned. I must retain certain aspects of the Victorian view of heroism because I regard serving soldiers as brave, but not heroes -- unless they do something out of the ordinary and truly heroic.

In fact I think calling all soldiers on active service "heroes" is patronising. I suspect they don't think of themselves as "heroes" at all, even the ones who have performed heroic actions in battle.

For what it's worth, I have exactly the same reaction. (Coincidentally, I noticed that Hancock's Rockall-living pod had a Help for Heroes sticker on it.)

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