- Children of the Regiment:Soldiers, Adoption, and Military Tenderness in Victorian Culture1
The plot of soldiers becoming adoptive parents as they care for neglected children encountered on campaigns or displaced by war is surprisingly prevalent in mid-Victorian British literature and art. This article explores this persistent idea of the regimental family, asking why gentleness—tactile and emotional—is such a recurrent feature in representations of the soldier, and considering how a particularly domesticated paternal ideal is ideologically mobilized in war narratives.
In my earlier project, Queer Dickens, I noted a number of narratives of military adoption as part of a consideration of Dickens’s wider interest in the bachelor father. Soldiers who take on the care of young children, such as Corporal Théophile of Dickens’s 1862 Christmas number “Somebody’s Luggage” and Major Jemmy Jackman who features in the Mrs. Lirriper Christmas numbers of 1863 and 1864, were considered amongst the many examples across Dickens’s fiction in which he explores an unmarried male’s desire to parent through plots of celebrated bachelor adoption. I argued that Dickens makes an emphatic case for a paternal instinct and aptitude not connected to, and certainly not generated by, biological reproduction. Here, I want to return to Corporal Théophile to recognize his significance as part of a much wider cultural preoccupation with the gentle soldier in the mid-Victorian period, a preoccupation focused around an ideal of the soldier as exemplary elective parent. I will consider how Dickens’s renderings of such figures build upon earlier literary and visual examples by Charlotte Yonge and John Everett Millais, and participate in broader debates about military masculinity, and its relationship to domesticity and the role of the father. Such plots continued to be highly popular in the late nineteenth century, persisting in the work of authors like John Strange Winter through the 1880s and 1890s, usually seen to be the heyday of the British empire, the stiff upper lip, and the literary portrayal of soldierly pluck and derring-do.
Corporal Théophile is the star of Dickens’s contribution, featured under the chapter heading “His Boots,” to “Somebody’s Luggage,” the multi-authored 1862 Christmas number of his journal All the Year Round. Théophile is garrisoned in the fictional French fortress town of Vauban, a training ground for the French “Grand Army.” The French soldiers confound expectations of [End Page 79] a strict division between military and domestic spheres, making themselves indispensable to the families with whom they are billeted:
A swarm of brisk, bright, active, bustling, handy, odd, skirmishing fellows, able to turn to cleverly at anything, from a siege to a soup, from great guns to needles and thread, from the broad-sword exercise to slicing an onion, from making war to making omelettes.(467)
This list of attributes, particularly the alliterative “brisk” “bright” and “bustling,” draws upon the language Dickens usually employs to describe the qualities of the domestic “little woman.” The homely aptitude of these soldiers is particularly perplexing to the story’s other central figure, a bigoted Englishman who has never previously left the country but has now fled to France to more effectively sever his ties with his daughter who has had a child out of wedlock:
These fellows are billeted everywhere about . . . and to see them lighting the people’s fires, boiling the people’s pots, minding the people’s babies, rocking the people’s cradles, washing the people’s greens, and making themselves generally useful, in every sort of unmilitary way, is most ridiculous!(467)
While in the Englishman’s narrow view these activities are comically and preposterously opposed to military masculinity, the narrative firmly places such skills as comfortably commensurate with soldiering:
Was there not Private Valentine, in that very house, acting as sole housemaid, valet, cook, steward and nurse, in the family of his captain, Monsieur le Capitaine De la Cour—cleaning the floors, making the beds, doing the marketing, dressing the captain, dressing the dinners, dressing the salads and dressing the baby, all with equal readiness?(470)
The romantically named Private Valentine (literally a military man of feeling) is placed in a context of...