- Northern Regions (1825): A New Template for Imperial Children
“Come, Charles, put the Hecla up into her boat-house, and come and see the real sailor, for uncle Richard has returned” (Anon. 1): So begins the tale of the brave English naval officer Uncle Richard in the popular anonymous 1825 children’s book Northern Regions, in which a fictional uncle recounts to his niece and nephews, Louisa, Tom and Charles, his immense trials at the polar limit of the world, and the eager English children begin their education as imperial agents by putting their toys away and listening to the tales of “the real sailor.”1 Real Arctic sailors were widely popular heroes in 1825 for children and adults alike: since 1818, the British Admiralty had sent its underemployed Napoleonic war-hardened heroes on no fewer than five nationally followed expeditions by land and sea, and historian Janice Cavell notes that the British public enjoyed consuming a veritable “onslaught” of information about the Arctic and British activity in it (24).2 In the adult press, Arctic heroes represented a particular brand of intense postwar manliness: intrepid, modest, and immensely strong, they were “clean to the core as an ice mountain”—ready-made exemplars for growing boys, and suitable characters for the already established “vast system of hero worship” associated with didactic Robinsonades from the late eighteenth century and beyond (Morley 241; Salmon, qtd. in Gubar 69).
What makes Northern Regions a fascinating study is its contrary relation to its contemporary image of the adult polar explorer, for, as this paper examines, it does not celebrate the development of the mature imperial traveler as one would expect. Rather, I argue that Northern Regions turns this social maturation on its head: in its narrative structure as well as its plot, it implies that it is in fact the cultural flexibility of childhood, rather than the consolidated confidence of adulthood, that is the explorer’s ideal state. My reading of Northern Regions is consistent with Marah Gubar’s assertion that juvenile literature from the nineteenth century did not simply [End Page 311] treat its readers or characters as “innocent naïfs” to be molded at will for the good of the empire, but as thoroughly socialized “ingenious collaborators” capable of “retelling, revising, and renewing” the stories they learn from adults (Gubar 4, 42, 38). Indeed, though the series of tales are carefully scripted examples of what Andrew O’Malley calls the “supervisory model” of didactic literature, the book’s author credits her young readers at the outset with the ability to “read the facts and form their own conclusions” (134, 138; Anon. iv). The book’s children are enthusiastic about British exploration, but the story’s many vignettes of British-Inuit interaction in Northern Regions suggest that it is not when the explorer expresses, but precisely when he expunges the trappings of his own culture that he is most successful—just as the book’s children mature when they take charge of the narration and significantly “renovate” the popular adult tales of polar adventure (Gubar 38). Indeed, unlike the factual, staunchly imperialist adult narratives on which Northern Regions draws, the book’s final image of the traveler is not of the triumphant adult Western male whose “imperial eye” takes command of all before him, and boys don’t grow into imperial men (Pratt 7). Instead, far from home, the imperial heroes become like children, and thereby receive their most valuable cross-cultural lessons.
At the start of Northern Regions the north appears as both a cultural and geographical blank, an unoriginal textual exercise that Francis Spufford and Jen Hill both note was an essential component to nineteenth-century imperialist definitions of it as a British imaginative space. In Hill’s words, “the Arctic was as much ideological as physical terrain . . . a blank page on which to draft . . . national and imperial narratives” (3). This blankness, a significant element in adult narratives of polar travel, was also prevalent in other northern juvenile fiction such as R. M. Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders (1856), which, like the adult journals, focussed on the protagonist’s “ability to control his fate” against...