- The Imperial Boy as Prosthesis
The notion of an empire on which the sun never sets was not original to British imperial culture; it was conceived in the mid-sixteenth century in relation to the earlier established Spanish empire of Charles I and, later, of his son Philip II. Mid-Victorian Britain gave the concept a new lease on life—already in 1861, Lord Salisbury used it familiarly in a complaint about colonial defence expenditures—and it became for several decades a slogan for popular understanding of Britain's imperial achievement and, most particularly, of the global expanse of the nation's territorial holdings (see Roberts). Revisiting now, however, the affirmation that "the sun never sets on the British Empire," I wonder if it does not speak of time as well as space, of duration as well as expansiveness. Does the phrase not suggest that Britain's empire will never come upon its waning moments, never witness the last light of its glorious day, never descend into oblivious darkness? The Victorian imperial project was not only to gain an expansive empire but also to retain it, to extend it in time beyond any foreseeable demise.
The will to gain time, to gain the promise of time, directs attention to the child. Although eighteenth-century Britain had already established childhood and the child as important modern sites of societal investment, the several decades of the Victorian age served to shape and consolidate the understanding of the child as a bearer of meanings—a symbol, an emblem—in whom one could read a society's character and stature, even its future. The child who [End Page 41] announces the future also consolidates selected aspects of the present and the past; the child is a site of negotiation for contingent times. A generation of children decides, by the cumulative force of the children's coming of age, what is to be retained of the productions of preceding generations—what achievements, what projects, what values, what ideals and aspirations. The child, called upon to innovate and renew, is also recruited as a bearer of legacies.
As a locus and bearer of particular social meanings, the child is not so much empowered as rendered instrumental. The reading of the child becomes the writing of the child; the message contained in the figure of the child becomes a discourse of the child and childhood. In this figurative, discursive deployment of the child, in this tacit recognition of the child's potential as instrument—the sense of all that the represented child, the child as figure, can be made to say and do—one can discover an enabling application of the prosthesis. To assure its extension in time, Victorian imperial culture makes prosthetic use of the figure of the child. And in this process, a clear preference is shown with respect to gender. The child-enabler of an enduring empire is a boy. Male authors create him; his cohorts are other boys (or men); he participates in masculine projects and undertakings. Some post-Victorian fictions—notably Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911), and a few decades later, the adventure series of Enid Blyton—worked to turn attention to the possible roles of the girl in imperial representation, but such innovations clearly maintain a relationship with the original Victorian-boy prototype. In our own time, a globally successful embodiment of a female child-adventurer is to be found in Dora, of Dora the Explorer, but even Dora has her intrepid cousin and occasional companion Diego, who is a quite exact, if slightly updated, reproduction of the boy whom Victorian authors pressed into imperial service time and again. The Victorian legacy is thus legible in the Dora narratives; the Victorian imperial boy is submitted to both reproduction and derivation. The Victorian era had, however, uses for the boy-prosthesis that were culturally and historically specific.
The boy of Victorian imperial fiction is plucky; he is elected as the vigorously, exuberantly youthful representative of an empire that wants to be and remain young. In maturity lies the beginning of decay, and so the empire must be forever young—or at...