transcending silence... 2007 Issue


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“The name for that kind of decency”: Cultural Constructions of Imperial Masculinity and Gendered Threats in Late Victorian Britain


Sarah Morris*


This article considers how constructs of imperial masculinity by British middle class men during the late Victorian era were conflicted, and even undermined, by contradictions inherent within notions of the ideal, civilized British man.  Confidently promoting ambiguous views on civilization, imperial nationalism, and masculinity, British middle class men, whose voices dominated the public sphere, championed an often contradictory premise of national superiority, where the domesticated and civilized male existed alongside the virile adventurer in the imagined landscape of the imperial nation.  These anxieties appeared in popular discourse, frequently as tropes of invasion and fears of degeneracy or decline.  As such, men combated their anxiety and shored up a hegemonic brand of masculinity at the expense of groups deemed unseemly, such as women, racial ‘others,’ and significantly, Anglo men who failed to conform to dominant gender mores.  Middle class rhetoric marginalized these groups, and with a broad streak of paranoia, highlighted a variety of threats to masculinity in the bodies of these ‘others.’  Yet these perceived threats did not wage war on a monolithic brand of masculinity.  Rather, hegemonic masculinity contained a variety of fissures and contradictions, proving a highly unstable entity.  By exploring the siege mentality of middle class men, which located threats to gender identity from without as well as from within, and attempts to stabilize and locate a confident gender identity, a fuller understanding of the gendered legacies of colonialism can arise, allowing contemporary observers to better acknowledge the power of rhetoric in the formation of gender identity.



I. Introduction

II. Civilized Masculinities

III. National Health and Masculinity

IV. Masculine Anxieties

V. Movement and Masculinity

VI. Threats to Masculinity

VII. Effeminacy

VIII. Spaces of Silence

IX. Conclusion


I. Introduction [Return to Sections]

In late Victorian Britain, hegemonic middle class men endeavored to stabilize and locate a masculine identity that could function as the epitome of national mores.  During the age of “high imperialism,” expressions of nationalism and masculinity proved bellicose and ostentatious.  However, discursive analysis of masculine rhetoric unveils an undercurrent of anxiety.  In this period, Britain faced political challenges from the continent, as other European powers “scrambled for empire” and encroached on Britain’s political preeminence [1]. Recently industrialized Germany particularly challenged Britain’s economic status [2].  Likewise, disenfranchised groups, such as women and workers, agitated for increased political rights and contested middle class male primacy [3]. Cultural expressions of imperialism also “grew increasingly noisy, racist, and self-conscious” in an effort to combat growing doubts concerning the imperial mission[4]. Men implicitly conveyed the latent anxieties propelling gendered values through meticulously mapping, assiduously defining, and stringently policing masculine identity. 

Middle class men often undermined their definitions of masculinity in response to perceived threats.  To combat these threats, men needed to be unequivocally manly.  And to achieve this requirement, men increasingly emphasized the bodily aspects of masculinity [5]. Yet men still needed more cerebral notions of civility to offset potentially excessive physicality. Predicating their claims to universal superiority on a nebulous notion of “civilization,” anxious middle class men embraced an overextended masculine identity beholden to divergent yet necessary modes of behavior: rational restraint and athletic vigor, sedentary domesticity and kinetic physicality.  Responding to ubiquitous threats by embracing an amorphous conception of civilization, middle class men effectively promoted a gendered imperial national identity that, while ostensibly cohesive, proved insecure and fragmented. 

II. Civilized Masculinities [Return to Sections]

Accepting civilization as axiomatic, middle class men generally cast practices and people they deemed uncivilized as at best dubious and at worst criminal.  A sweeping concept, civilization could serve various forms of masculinity.  As such, the proponents of divergent programs of male behavior, such as aesthete Oscar Wilde and jingoistic journalist G.A. Stevens, legitimized their views through their subjective understandings of civilization.  The national mood, as articulated by middle class men, tended to reflect a more jingoist view of masculinity in this period, however. 

In Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the droll Lord Henry, who introduces Dorian Gray to a new philosophy of aesthetic hedonism, notes that if people “were to give form to every feeling … we would forget all the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal …. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives”[6].  Wilde steeps his appeal to aestheticism in the language of Enlightenment, the paradigm that denigrates anything “backwards” and uncivilized as “savage.”  At another end of the gender spectrum, more conservative middle class men presented the “muscular regime” [7] of masculinity, which gained currency in the latter part of the century as a realization of enlightened ideals.  This muscular regime derived much of its impetus from the state school system established in 1870 [8].  The curriculum was modeled after the elite public school system which promoted “the virtues of truth, purity, courage, simplicity, hardiness and reverence”[9]. For example, journalist G.W. Stevens, writing during the Boer War, noted that “civilization is making it too easy to live.  A wiser humanitarianism would make it easy for the lower quality of life to die….  We have let brutality die out too much”[10]. An uncompromising endorsement of Spencerian ideas, Stevens inverts expectations by promoting brutality as the new civility for the scientific, vigorous middle class male.  Though both men depart from bourgeois norms, neither author endorses a model of behavior outside the bounds of civilization.  Rather, each appropriates and refashions civilization.  Ideas of civilization thus constituted an intellectual imperative for middle class men: a mental construct upon which to map identities and a potent weapon with which to attack opponents. 

III. National Health and Masculinity [Return to Sections]

Rising health concerns in the late Victorian era cultivated a veritable hypochondriac siege mentality among middle class men.  Men couched internal and external threats to their gender identity in biological terms, signifying the importance of physicality to definitions of masculinity [11]. By promoting the civilized man as the linchpin of the imperial nation, middle class men exploded the dimensions of their self-awareness, extrapolating threats to the individual male onto the nation and inscribing nationalist anxieties onto individual male bodies.  As Sinha explains, “the nation itself is largely modeled as a brotherhood or a fraternity which has never of course included all men. The homosociality of the national brotherhood has depended in large part on the exclusion of homosexuals and of men otherwise constructed as deviants.  The nation is not only imagined typically as fraternal, it is defended and administrated through predominantly homosocial institutions”[12]. A specific set of privileged males constituted the core of the nation, literally a body politic. Middle class men frequently articulated their anxieties by referencing the concept of degeneracy, or the breakdown of the male body.  However, men frequently transposed this fear onto female bodies, as the eugenically driven discourse surrounding the Boer War, fought against the white Afrikaner settler for the control of South Africa, reveals [13].

A veritable health crisis offset the “wave of jingoistic enthusiasm and propaganda” sparked by the onset of the Boer War in 1899, as a great many army volunteers, primarily from the lower classes, “were found to be physically unfit for service”[14]. In fact, Major General Frederick Maurice later estimated that “only two out of every five volunteers remained as effective soldiers” a condition he considered “appalling and disastrous”[15]. Inspired by eugenics, male officials directed their gaze towards the home and the mother as the crucial progenitors of the future members of the imperial race.  Since the health of the domestic British population undoubtedly affected the continuance of Empire, “women needed to produce more and better individuals”[16]. Men invoking the authority of science and manliness, which tended to go hand in hand, promoted schemes to “glorify Motherhood,” to encourage eugenically informed marriages, to combat the scourge of syphilis, and thus threats to the nation’s birthing vessels, and to prescribe appropriate amounts of physical and mental exertion for women, lest their “childbearing capacity … be damaged”[17]. The bodies of women served as malleable surfaces upon which to inscribe masculine anxiety.  For, as Henry Asquith asked, what was the use of an Empire “’if it does not breed and maintain in the truest and fullest sense of the word an Imperial race?’”[18]

IV. Masculine Anxieties [Return to Sections]

Intriguingly, men often expressed their fears of degeneracy in relation to other men.  The contradictions inherent within idealized definitions of masculinity became much more pronounced when viewed within the confines of male interaction.  Hegemonic middle class men attempted to combat identity crises by casting pejorative gendered terms, actions with significant political and social ramifications, onto other men.  Such tactics reveal the fluidity of gendered identities as well as the instability of Victorian masculinity.  For instance, middle class men bolstered masculinity by creating an image of a diametrically opposed, racial other, such as the “effeminate Bengali,”[19] or by utilizing racial and sexual prejudices to condemn an Anglo man’s inappropriate behavior.  In many respects, masculinity was an ambivalent consensus that could easily fracture.  Men noted with trepidation the ability and even propensity of men to transgress supposedly sacrosanct boundaries of gender identity.  Middle class men also relied upon tropes of invasion to express the corruption of masculinity.  Invasion and degeneracy collaborated in masculine rhetoric, which required an alien force, external or internal, to propel a civilized man into disgraceful behavior.  Definitions of civilized masculinity thus proved as intricate and as malleable as the insidious and ostensibly “uncivilized” threats to masculinity.  And the uncertain locations of masculinity, and the chimerical threats to masculinity, contributed an element of paranoia to middle class male discourse.

A preponderance of invasion tales emerged in the late Victorian era, reflecting an array of concerns about the status and security of the nation, particularly implicit challenges to gender norms[20]. Ideally, men were supposed to move about freely from sphere to sphere, “transforming unproductive spaces profitably”[21]. The spaces were altered by a man’s beneficent presence, while the man himself maintained an immutable core of masculinity.  Yet now, male spaces were encroached upon by a variety of actors: in the political realm, an increased number of lower class men gained the vote while suffragettes agitated for the vote[22]; in the economic realm, the women entered previously male dominated professions, such as medicine, and industrializing nations challenged Britain’s economic status[23]; in the imperial realm, Indian natives began emerging as a political force with the Indian National Congress, which first convened in 1885 and fostered the nationalist movement in the 20th century[24]. In all instances, traditional male authority was displaced.  And Even the homosocial ideal proved untenable as tales of deviant behavior among other men began to circulate with increased frequency [25].

V. Movement and Masculinity [Return to Sections]

Britain’s status as an imperial nation served as a point of pride for middle class men, the signifier of national greatness and civility.  Both the empire and the domestic sphere functioned as important realms for men.  However, the ability of these spheres to safeguard and maintain masculinity depended on the existence of static boundaries, which men alone could traverse with impunity.  The writings of middle class men often expressed this ideal via concepts of time.  Women were cast outside of history, to the eternal realm of domesticity while colonial natives were frozen in the past, as in India, or completely devoid of history, as in Africa.  These groups were relegated to a “permanently anterior time” and an “anachronistic space” existing rather anomalously in modern space and time, the province of white men [26]

Middle class men only accepted certain concepts of motion, however, promoting a movement/stasis paradox in their hagiographic depictions of masculinity.  Men compromised by emphasizing restrained movement.  Such concepts are best demonstrated by men’s fixation on sports [27]. Games such as cricket disseminated the core values of British masculinity: decency, fair play, teamwork, athleticism, and activity within a prescribed set of rules and boundaries.  As the headmaster of Harrow School, J.E.C. Welldon, noted, the same qualities “which merit success in cricket or football, are the very qualities which win the day in peace or war” [28]. 

Likewise, Kipling explores civilized and uncivilized movement in his novel of an Anglo-Indian boy struggling with an identity crisis, Kim.  At one point Kipling depicts sensory overload on a busy Indian road as groups “rising and falling like the back of a caterpillar in haste, would swing up through the quivering dust …” [29]. The image of the caterpillar proves whimsical and the diction, such as “falling,” implies great activity.  Groups, though exciting, nonetheless stir up dust and chaos, and thus threats to sanitary, orderly British rule.  While Kim’s childlike perspective frequently romanticizes India, he begins to invoke negative terms to describe India as he ages and becomes increasingly acculturated to British norms.  For example, Kim distastefully notes the “cramped and crowded streets,” [30] the “mob” on the train, [31] and the illegal funeral pyres by the river where “despite all municipal regulations, the fragment of a half-burned body bobbed by on the full current” [32]. The “bobbing” charred remains acutely symbolizes the danger of native recalcitrance, collapsing the teeming mass of living people into the sinister symbol of the drifting epitome of destruction, the disembodied and burnt body part that bears the memory of frenetic, harmful movement. 

However, British institutions, such as the army or Kim’s school, are defined by order and conformity.  For instance, Kim observes a British regiment rapidly setting up a camp.  As Kipling describes, “The rippling column swung into the level – carts behind it – divided left and right, ran about like an ant-hill, and ….  The plain dotted itself with tents that seemed to rise, all spread, from the carts.  Another rush of men invaded the grove, pitched a huge tent in silence … and behold the mango-tope turned into an orderly town as they watched!” [33] In an example of parallel diction, the English regiment “swung” onto the scene, but silently raise an “orderly” tent village rather than noisily stir up dust.  The movements of the British here are also controlled yet vigorous, as the men “invade” the area heroically to enact a civilizing tableaux vivant in restrained “silence.”

VI. Threats to Masculinity [Return to Sections]

Imperial invasions, sexual disruptions, and gender inversions also run rampant throughout two popular detective stories, Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone and Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Sign of Four.  Significantly, a British man steals treasure from India and introduces a gendered imperial threat into English homes in both tales.  In Doyle’s story, Jonathan Small’s vengeful activity threatens British security.  A member of the “criminal” lower classes accompanied by a cannibalistic, tribal other, Small becomes a conglomeration of traits of difference and otherness, tainted by his time in India.  As a man with a wooden leg, due to a crocodile bite, small stature, and a “mean” appearance, Small stands in marked physical, as well as mental, contrast to the “sinewy” and lanky man of science, Sherlock Holmes [34]. Small’s very existence, and a name that connotes underdevelopment, threatens to destabilize British masculinity. 

The revelatory power of the imperial threat in Collins’ novel also unveils problematic masculine traits in the two lead characters.  The ironically named Godfrey Ablewhite, a caricature of muscular Christianity, proves a fraud whose machinations, namely his efforts to steal the Indian diamond to fund his extravagance and mistresses, introduce chaos into the domestic sphere.  Alongside Ablewhite’s hypocrisy and licentiousness appear Franklin Blake’s recurring displays of emotional effeminacy.  Described throughout the text as having a “split personality,” [35] Franklin is continually reduced to tears and overwrought displays over the diamond’s theft.  In one scene, his cousin Rachel literally “unmanned him,” leaving Franklin with discernable “tears in his eyes” [36]. And a damning paint stain on his nightclothes, acquired when he inadvertently stole the diamond from Rachel while drugged, effectively stealing Rachel’s virtue as the theft “altered her brain” [37] and caused her to manifest hysterical and aggressive behavior, evokes a sexual taint, an illicit encounter and a premature ejaculation that risks enervation and represents a lack of manly control. 
While the British men here, unwittingly or not, wreak havoc on gender norms, the presence of Indian men in both stories insidiously threaten masculinity with the introduction of a negative racial element.  In A Sign of Four the sinister native, Tonga, described in highly bestial terms as a “savage and distorted creature,” [38] murders an Englishman in his home, leaving his victim a contorted parody of a human body.  Holmes’ companion Watson is disturbed by the victim’s “ghastly, inscrutable smile” and noted that it “seemed to me that no only his features but all his limbs were twisted and turned in the most fantastic fashion” [39]. The colonial other possesses a frightening amount of power here as he invades a civilized English home and desecrates the male body.

Collins’ novel also involves scenes of home invasion and threats to male bodies, most notably in a scene evocative of male rape.  Lured into a residence by three Indians endeavoring to reclaim their diamond, Godfrey is “seized round the neck from behind. He had just time to notice that he arm round his neck was naked and of a tawny-brown color, before his eyes were bandaged, his mouth was gagged, and he was thrown helpless on the floor by … two men. A third rifled his pockets … and searched him without ceremony through and through to his skin” [40]. The loss of control evident in this scene, as the Englishman is overpowered and subjected to a physical violation by racial ‘others’, harrowingly depicts a visceral fear inherent within British masculinity.   

VII. Effeminacy [Return to Sections]

While these depictions of Indian men relied on notions of primitive bestiality, British middle class men also disparaged the seemingly innocuous adoption of Anglo traits by a rising Indian middle class.  Transgressions of dominant gender and racial norms, committed by Anglo or by foreign men, unsettled middle class males.  Articulating negative definitions of masculinity, or what it was not, British men implicitly questioned what ideal masculinity actually constituted, revealing the substantial fragility inherent within definitions of masculinity.  Seeking to combat the disturbing power of colonial mimicry, British men in India actively denigrated English educated Indians as effeminate.  As theorist Homi Bhabha explains, “the menace of mimicry is its double vision, which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority” [41]. Middle class masculinity hegemony depended on a universal acceptance of its distinctiveness [42].  Paradoxically, while the civilized mission endeavored to enlighten others, the men carrying out the mission could not allow these others to fully appropriate the defining traits of masculinity, leaving it redundant.  As such, British men parodied effeminate Indians in an effort to mute their implicit challenge to imperial rule.  For if Indians could govern themselves in a civilized manner, what was the purpose of the British presence in the country [43]?

Kipling’s Huree Babu in Kim, more of a caricature than a character, serves as a ridiculous example of the educated Bengali.  Babu works for the Indian Civil Service, a popular career path for many Indians with an Anglo education[44]. Kipling describes Babu as “full-fleshed, heavy-haunched, bull-necked, and deep-voiced” as well as a masterful actor who can transition from “oily, effusive, and nervous” to “polished, polite, attentive” with an ease that Kim envies [45]. This constant tension between Babu’s desirable traits and his considerable absurdities defines Babu’s character. Behavior acceptable for a British man becomes comical, and vaguely sinister, when exhibited by a Bengali. 
To emphasize this comedic aspect, Kipling renders Babu’s speech phonetically, highlighting his impartial realization of British culture.  For instance, in one scene Babu is collecting “folk-lore for the Royal Society,” and unfortunately “dreads the magic” he “contemptuously investigates” [46]. Babu proceeds to speak to Kim, awkwardly blending pedantry with public school slang, expressing his “’opeenion’” on folk magic, boasting that he has “’contributed rejected notes to Asiatic Quarterly Review on these subjects,”’ and noting that “it is curious that the old gentleman himself [Babu’s boss] is totally devoid of religiosity. He is not a damn particular” [47]. Later Babu further reveals his awkward bi-culturalism while on an espionage mission, where he “thanked all the Gods of Hindustan, and Herbert Spencer, that there remained some valuables to steal” [48]. Babu’s invocation of “Herbert Spencer” underscores the tragedy of colonialism, whereby the colonized must internalize a denigrating hegemonic culture.  Yet the reference to social Darwinism, which espoused the evolutionary superiority of the British as a race, constitutes the core of Kipling’s understanding of Babu.  The Bengali’s knowledge of British culture remains hollow by virtue of his foreign blood.  Culture becomes something encoded in a person’s racial heritage.  However, despite the dogmas of racial elitism, British men still feared their own ability to abominate racial imperatives.

Racially similar, yet still depicted as others by the middle classes, effete aristocrats increasingly represented an insidious sexual threat to the entire nation, as epitomized by the integrity of middle class men.  This threat appeared in tales of seduction, where aristocratic men tempted and tainted lower middle class youths, leading them into a world of sexual deviance.  One of the most infamous examples of these tropes occurred in the Cleveland Street Affair of 1889-90, where a number of telegraph boys were caught working in a male brothel patronized by wealthy clientele.  The public was outraged by the affair, but the wealthy patrons of the brothel were not convicted at trial.  Rather, a newspaper editor who publicly protested the leniency shown to the wealthy was convicted in an ensuing libel, revealing “something very like homophobia … at work [where] the fury aroused by accusations of aristocratic license was so easily redirected at the whistle-blowers [49]. As Kaplan notes, the press “emphasized the heinous character of unspecified sexual offenses while linking radical hostility toward the aristocracy with public suspicion of deviant desires and practices” [50].
This widespread unwillingness to specify or discuss the offenses committed undoubtedly played a role in the shooting of the messenger and the acquittal of the perpetrators.  As the Lord Chancellor Halsbury explained,  "if . . . the social position of some of the parties will make a great sensation this will give very wide publicity and consequently will spread very extensively written matter of the most revolting and mischievous kind, the spread of which I am satisfied will produce enormous evil" [51].  Halsbury’s plea for silence accentuates the anxiety lurking within middle class men, where undue exposure could reveal the limitations within a stylistically confident masculine identity. 

VIII. Spaces of Silence [Return to Sections]

Silence, like othering and policing, became a tool for middle class men seeking to stabilize a viable definition of heteronormative masculinity.  The necessity of silence appears in Conrad’s Lord Jim, where an act of cowardice effectively attacks masculine mores.  Jim, a young sailor who shamefully abandoned an Indian passenger ship with his fellow European officers during what they thought was a crisis, elects to stand trial for his crime.  Though Jim violated naval procedure by abandoning ship, Jim’s real crime was his violation of masculine norms.  Convinced that the ship was sinking, Jim “had been tricked into a high-minded resignation which prevented him from lifting so much as his little finger” to help the passengers [52]. Jim’s actions on the imperial stage reveal a danger inherent within imperial masculinity, where the reality of empire threatened to destroy the romantic ideal of masculine adventure in an imperial setting.

The opening lines of Lord Jim cast Jim as a romantic paragon of masculinity. Jim is tall, “powerfully built,” with a “deep” voice, “dogged” manner, and “spotlessly neat appearance” [53]. Yet a letter to Conrad’s narrator Marlow describes Jim’s Adonis-like appearance and gentlemanly demeanor and notes that “had he been a girl … one could have said he was blooming – blooming modestly – like a violet, not like some of these blatant tropical flowers” [54]. On the landscape of Jim’s face, the line dividing the admirable restraint of the English gentleman and the notable modesty of the English “girl” is blurred.  Vaguely effete overtones envelop Jim throughout the novel, reflecting both Jim’s degenerate behavior and latently sexual overtone embedded within homosocial interactions.  Marlow compulsively stares at Jim, drawn to his “striking” figure and prompting an impudent Jim to brusquely ask “What did you mean by staring at me all the morning?” [55] Yet Marlow’s gaze and effusively aesthetic descriptions threaten to falter stray from manly norms.  Descriptions of effeminacy can thus threaten to undermine the gender identity of speaker or author [56].

Silence proves one way to combat such a threat, disavowing the ability of civilized rhetoric to attenuate its creation, masculinity.  Many of Jim’s comrades are more outraged by the publicity of the trial than by Jim’s shameful actions.  Captain Brierly, who oversees Jim’s trial and later commits suicide, suggests bribing Jim to leave, desolately noting that “The fellow’s a gentleman …  This infernal publicity is too shocking: there he sits while all these confounded natives, serangs, lascars, quartermasters, are giving evidence that’s enough to burn a man to ashes with shame. This is abominable” [57]. Brierly personalizes his outrage, casting Jim’s actions as an insult to his individual identity and his collective ideal of masculinity. 

For Brierly, Jim’s actions induced a traumatic epiphany, revealing the inherent weakness of civilized masculinity.  Despairingly, Brierly exclaims that “We aren’t an organized body of men, and the only thing that holds us together is just the name for that kind of decency. Such an affair destroys one’s confidence” [58]. Meanwhile, Marlow wonders “Who can tell what flattering view he had induced himself to take of his own suicide” [59]. Marlow’s diction casts Brierly as vainglorious and melodramatic.  Brierly’s logic reveals the fluidity of masculine identity and the highly performative and self-deceptive aspects of that ideal. Extrapolating the middle class ideal of masculinity outward as a universal truth, which Jim proceeded to heretically desecrate, Brierly also intensely personalizes collective mores, ending his own life in a flourish of narcissistic disillusionment. 
Marlow also resents Jim for narrating his act of cowardice, “as though he had cheated me – me! – of a splendid opportunity to keep up the illusion of my beginnings, as though he had robbed our common life of the last spark of its glamour” [60]. Much like Brierly, Marlow identifies himself as part of a collective body of men, switching between his own “beginnings” and “our common life.”  Jim’s betrayal resonates unsettlingly with each individual man who encounters Jim or his story.  Masculinity thus becomes highly constructed, an act of faith or folly, contingent upon a consensual performance. 

IX. Conclusion [Return to Sections]

Middle class men in the late Victorian era thus defined, policed, and filtered the world around them in an effort to secure an amorphous ideal of civilized masculinity.  Men structured social divisions and“othered” subversive elements to strategically protect masculinity.  Significant spaces of silence also existed within masculine discourse where failures could not be fully acknowledged lest masculinity fracture.  Despite these efforts at achieving neat divisions, dominant masculine mores imbued contradictory elements.  Belied by a confident presentation, middle class men struggled to locate civilized masculinity, as revealed by discursive tropes of dislocation and invasion. 

Gender identity proved schizophrenic in this period. Middle class men roved between disparate yet interconnected realms in an effort to locate masculinity.  These men left degrading and protean views in the cultural sphere, which dominated and even continue to dominate public and political discourse in the modern age.  By unpacking these dominant strands of masculinity, scholars can seek to better understand the gendered and nationalist legacies of the colonial era.  Middle class definitions of masculinity continually denigrated others, such as women, homosexuals, and non-Anglos, and rhetorically reinforced these hierarchical views by applying terms such as “effeminate” to alternative expressions of masculinity.  Yet these hegemonic definitions also contained marked internal fissures, as middle class men endeavored to reconcile often untenable ideals, such as a need for virility with a need for restraint.  An analysis of the complexities present within masculine rhetoric, which frequently internalized external threats and externalized internal fears, can explore the gendered constructs of the late Victorian era and recognize the often damaging legacies of these cultural mores, which continue to shape identities and discussion of gender in the postcolonial era. A sustained analysis of the cultural legacies of British imperial nationalism can hopefully foster debate and introduce broader understandings of the multifaceted process of identity formation into the increasingly global, postcolonial public sphere.       



1. Thomas William Heyck.  The People’s of the British Isles: From 1870 to the Present.  2nd Edition.  (New York: Lyceum Books, 2002): 85-7.

2. Ibid, 5-6.

3. Ibid, 10.

4. Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism 1830-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990): 33.

5. Angus McLaren, The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). 

6. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Dover Publications, 1993): 13.

7. J.A. Mangan, The Games Ethic and Imperialism: Aspects of the Diffusion of an Ideal (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1998).

8. Heyck, 68.

9. Mangan, 26.

10. Brantlinger, 34.

11. Elizabeth M. Collingham.  Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, 1800-1947(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001): 117.

12. Mrinalini Sinha. “Nations in an Imperial Crucible,” in Gender and Empire, ed. Philippa Levine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 194.

13. Heyck, 98-101.

14. Anna Davin.  “Imperialism and Motherhood,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, ed. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997): 93.

15. Ibid.

16. Alison Bashford, “Medicine, Gender and Empire,” in Gender and Empire, ed. Philippa Levine  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 126.

17. Davin, 98-101.

18. Ibid, 97.

19. Mrinalini Sinha.  Colonial Masculinity: The ‘Manly Englishman’ and the Effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

20. Brantlinger, 235.

21. Philippa Levine. “Introduction: Why Gender and Empire?” in Gender and Empire, ed. Philippa Levine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 7.

22. Heyck, 64, 15.

23. Patricia Murphy, “The Gendering of History in She,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900  v. 39 (1999):  747.

24. Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas Metcalf, A Concise History of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 136-7.

25. John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity in the Middle Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999): 189-90.

26. Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995): 30.

27. Mangan.

28. J.E.C. Welldon. “The Imperial Purpose of Education, 1894-5,” in Proceedings of the Royal Colonial Institute: 823

29. Rudyard Kipling, Kim (New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2004): 64. 

30. Ibid, 63.

31. Ibid, 198.

32. Ibid, 197.

33. Ibid, 82.

34. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Sign of Four,” in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Vol I (New York: Bantam Classic, 2003): 206-7, 214.

35. Wilkie Collins,  The Moonstone (New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2001), 19.

36. Ibid, 158.

37. Ibid, 87.

38. Doyle, 203.

39. Ibid, 156.

40. Collins, 204.

41. Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” in Tensions of Empire: 155.

42. Collingham.

43. Brantlinger, 38.

44. Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘Manly Englishman’ and the Effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

45. Kipling, 226.

46. Ibid, 181.

47. Ibid, 182.

48. Ibid, 239.

49. Morris. B. Kaplan,  “Who’s Afraid of John Saul: Urban Culture and the Politics of Desire in Late Victorian London” Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies v. 5 (1999): 292, 299.

50. Ibid, 292.

51. Ibid, 292.

52. Joseph Conrad,  Lord Jim (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002): 69.

53. Ibid, 3.

54. Ibid, 133.

55. Ibid, 5, 51.

56. James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).

57. Ibid, 48.

58. Ibid, 49.

59. Ibid, 47.

60. Ibid, 95.


Adams, James Eli.  Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

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*Sarah Morris is currently a senior at Southwestern University, and she will graduate with an honors degree in History this year. She is interested in cultural history and gender studies and she plans to pursue a graduate degree in European history next year. This article is part of a larger honors thesis project that explores cultural constructions of middle-class masculine identity in the late Victorian British Empire. Sarah has presented her research at history conferences at Southwestern University and Rhodes College. This paper was written under the supervision of her thesis advisor Dr. Elizabeth Green Musselman at Southwestern University and greatly benefited from her insight and feedback. [Return]

Edited by Yolanda Palmer and Bill Schraffenberger.





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