Published in the twilight of the Victorian period, Henry Newbolt's poem "Vitai Lampada" ("Torches of Life") juxtaposes a cricket match, in which a beleaguered team is rallied by its noble captain, with a battle gone awry, in which a unit of soldiers is in desperate straits; the tide of battle turns with the invocation of the public-school ethos and the injunction to "Play up!" Newbolt's poem indicates that the Victorians identified and celebrated the continuity between athletic games and war.1 Work by scholars like J.A. Mangan supports this contention; while Mangan has outlined connections between the spread of the Empire and the proliferation of games like cricket and rugby, what has not received as much critical attention is the continuity between domestic games and imperial activities.2 Imperial training was not exclusive to public-school crickethers; in fact, the majority of British children in the nineteenth century were engaging in games which were preparing them for the administrative, as well as martial, work of the Empire. In the domestic setting, seemingly innocuous party games, parlor theatricals, and improvisational play reinforced the agenda of nineteenth-century British imperialism, and played a formative role in shaping the imperial consciousness of young children.
Whereas games like cricket took place within a specifically ordered, bounded, and usually male homosocial space, party games and home theatricals were played by both girls and boys within the context of their everyday lives—in the same parlors and on the same playgrounds where they were drilled on social behavior and decorum, as well as in the nurseries where they learned reading, arithmetic, and geography. The recreation offered by domestic games [End Page 294] extended the learning undertaken in parlors and on playgrounds, and was, in fact, a recreation of the lessons learned in other media.3 Like juvenile fiction in general, primers and games adhered to the didactic model of combining amusement with instruction; the games produced from the late eighteenth century through 1850 occupied children's bodies while simultaneously instilling specific habits of mind. Young boys could follow the trajectory of these games as missionaries, civil servants, military leaders, or as merchants seeking commercial gain abroad. While the options for women were much more limited, the games rarely gendered the play.
Through their party games,4 children could begin to interact more directly with the subjects of their play. Unlike more structured play like Boy Scouts or cricket, party games did not necessarily require the active supervision and financial sponsorship of adults, thus substituting rules and codes mutually agreed upon by the players for those rules determined by parental authority. On the other hand, home theatricals were often initiated by parents and educators as a means of encouraging children to model their learning about, and mastery of, Other cultures. As recorded with especial care in the genres of adventure fiction and geography primers, such theatricals allowed children to experiment with Other identities and to produce Otherness as an amusing spectacle for English entertainment. Home theatricals also advocated commercial ventures and reconnaissance expeditions, themes which were reinforced elsewhere in children's leisure reading of adventure tales by writers like G.A. Henty and R.M. Ballantyne, or in their seemingly more rigorous reading of geography primers, a genre in which child readers were encouraged to order, mark, and identify territory according to its potential usefulness to the goals of the Empire.
Like the reading practices that children engaged in elsewhere, party games and home theatricals fostered a culture of Empire in which children rehearsed imperial acts even in moments of unstructured leisure or improvisational recreation. As texts like the Brontë juvenilia (1829-1839) and Sarah Lee [Bowdich]'s Playing at Settlers (1854) attest, the culture of Empire permeated even remote areas like Haworth Parsonage. As it did so, it presented rich material for imaginative minds to work on, and later reproduce in improvisational play. Though the skill and persistence with which the Brontë children followed these games was unique, the play itself was not, and was in fact a response to the culture of imperialism established and promoted through children's games. Drawing on archival research of parlor...