- British Adventure Fiction
Beginning in the 1880s, the British literary scene saw readers' attention turn towards a newly popular, if not new, genre. Where the medium had previously been represented by realistic novels like those of George Eliot and Anthony Trollope, at this time some readers, particularly conservative male readers, began to voice a preference for adventure narratives: improbable stories about men defying death in exotic foreign lands. Then, as now, such self-conscious literary choices represented not only individual tastes, but larger social and political ideals; authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson and, later, Arthur Conan Doyle not only wrote adventure stories, but wrote that other authors should write them as well. In an essay entitled "A Humble Remonstrance," Stevenson wrote that fiction was too often unlike life, which "is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant," and too often like "a work of art": "neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate." This last word, as Joseph Kestner writes in Masculinities in British Adventure Fiction, 1880-1915, offers an unsubtle clue to the rhetorical mission of much adventure fiction: to masculinize the novel, and with it British society. [End Page 544]
Yet one of Kestner's central findings is that masculinity is hardly a straightforward topic in adventure fiction. Even stories about boys becoming men, such as Stevenson's Treasure Island, can be as much about masculinity's horrors as about its virtues, and it is helpful to be reminded by Kestner that at the end of that book Jim Hawkins is psychologically damaged, haunted by his coming-of-age amongst the pirates. Other texts, such as Olive Schreiner's Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland and much of the work of Joseph Conrad, explicitly subvert the masculinizing mission of mainstream adventure fiction. Kestner's book, then, is not an exposition of a central thesis, but rather a series of studies of often divergent works. As a result, the book is likely to be useful to new scholars of the genre, who will appreciate the introduction to the range of texts and accompanying criticism, and Conrad scholars, who will benefit from seeing the author's works discussed in the context of the adventure genre. However, as I will discuss below, Kestner's attempt to include all relevant criticism prevents his book from having as profound or as broad an impact as it could, to a large degree making it a gateway to secondary literature rather than a coherent argument in its own right.
Although the works he studies are often dissimilar, even ideologically incompatible, Kestner does find structural commonalities among them. He identifies a four-part process by which the heroes of adventure fiction form their masculinity, for better or for worse: departing the homeland, encountering exotic dangers, transgressing (out of necessity) conventional morality, and reintegrating into civilized society. "The paradox," Kestner notes, "is that a man must transgress conventional behaviours to achieve integration into the masculine order." The physical and moral risks of transgression, of course, provide adventure narratives with much of their drama; some protagonists, such as those of Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, are killed or exiled rather than achieving integration into mainstream society. Adventure fiction's treatment of masculinity included failed examples and could be cautionary rather than encouraging.
Kestner's four stages of adventuring correspond roughly with his four chapters: "Voyaging," "Mapping," "Invading," and "Loving." These chapters consist of more or less separate treatments of works by Stevenson, Kipling, Conrad, Haggard, Buchan, and others. The chapter themes are broad enough that only very general statements can be applied to the texts within them as a group; I wished for more substance in the chapters' conclusions, some of which are no longer than a [End Page 545] paragraph. But the flexibility provided by the broad themes is helpful in the last chapter, "Loving," which uses a wide range of texts to convincingly undermine the assumption that women characters had only a marginal role in adventure fiction. Kestner ends the book by using Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps to argue that with the...