This article explores the notion of heroism in Victorian war literature by analyzing the figure of the soldier-hero in two imperial war memoirs: Captain Mowbray Thomson’s The Story of Cawnpore: The Indian Mutiny and John Pearman’s The Radical Soldier’s Tale. While The Story of Cawnpore is an emblematic example of what we call the Victorian hero myth, that is, the effective merging of traditional heroism, war as adventure and imperialism in mid-to late-nineteenth century Britain – The Radical Soldier’s Tale appears to posit an alternative to this widely accepted view, challenging its assumed universality and immutability. By analyzing Pearman’s innovative revision of heroism, in contrast to Thomson’s more conventional representation of the theme, this article attempts to illustrate both the traditional construction and a possible re-reading of the subject taking place in the same period. In order to do so, we focus on the three main aspects around which the representation of the nineteenth-century soldier-hero is articulated: the consolidation of traditional heroic manhood in the context of imperial war, the complex social justification of war and the demonization of the Other as a way of validating the heroic self. Particular attention is given to the fact that Pearman’s shift towards a more complex appreciation of the heroic subject appears to anticipate similar patterns occurring in the literature written during and after World War One.
Victorian literature; War heroes; Heroism; Memoirs