15 January 2009

Empire Building for Boys

The Frontier Fort by W.H.G. Kingston c.1880

This is one of those blocky little hardbacks that are not as heavy as you expect them to be because their pages are made of a cheap, yellowing paper stock that, despite being quite thick, feels as though it has been bulked out with air - a bit like a rice cake. The cover has a faded picture of a small house by a lake that doesn't immediately bring forts or frontiers to mind. There's quite a lot of gilt in the design and down the spine and I imagine that this was quite a gleaming, attractive thing when it was first in the bookshops.

First thing on a random opening is a page of text - a segment of the narrative arrived at in the way that randomly forward-winding a video of a film you've never seen will land you in the middle of a story you're not yet a part of. There appears to be a character called Old Sass and a hump-backed Indian called Greensnake. Something has happened at the fort that necessitates the removal of the bodies of some Indians and 'other signs of strife' so that the 'young ladies' can be ushered in and placed under the charge of a Mrs. Mackintosh 'whose maternal feelings had been severely tried by their absence'.

Leafthrough. The typeface is nice and clear and each chapter begins with a decorated capital letter and a neat little motif at the top of the page. There are two or three full-page illustrations showing animated scenes of danger - a Native American, feathers flying, making a lusty grab for a Victorian lady riding side-saddle on a horse, and a pack of voracious wolves leaping on a chap with a gun.

The front bits. The title page gives the book's subtitle as Stirring Times in the North-West Territory of British America. It seems the story has passed a kind of approval process initiated by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) who published it 'under the direction of the Committee of General Literature and Education'. The SPCK published a huge number of books in the second half of the 19th century, including a lot of adventure fiction for boys and girls. All of these tales would have had to have shown this or a similar committee that they would serve to point up virtues such as temperance, obedience, courage and chastity.

Looking into it. Given the publishers, I was fairly certain that this would not be an early cowboys and Indians story complete with cussing, gambling, feisty women, rough whisky and spittoons. The subtitle and the pompous, strangely effete white youth in the frontispiece picture confirmed this - the setting after all was not the Wild West but somewhere called British America.

Unlike the upstart United States to the south, this land was not to be civilized by ill-mannered ruffians shooting each others' lights out against a backdrop of flatpack store fronts. If he had ever read them, Kingston had obviously not taken the slightest influence from Ned Buntline's immensly popular dime novels featuring Buffalo Bill, or any of the similar material that was hitting the bookstalls of America in the late 19th century, laying down the foundations of the classic Western in the process.

In British America, it seems, civilization was nurtured through the establishment of lots of self-enclosed trading forts each one of which housed a microcosm of English society. Our hero, Reginald Loraine, is a 'young Englishman of good fortune and family' who is diverted from his journey to Fort Edmonton on the news that Fort Duncan to the south-west is being pestered by the local Blackfeet tribe. From him down, there are descending strata, including Allen Keith who shares Loraine's 'tastes and mental qualities' but has no money, and some jovial working class types who are either Scottish or Irish. A pinch of the exotic is added with the half-breed scout Greensnake.

At Fort Duncan, Captain Mackintosh is holding out with his two daughters (Sybil and Effie) against the advances of the sneaky (and randy) chief Mysticoose. Loraine journeys with his party through electrical storms, horse-stealing heathens, grizzly bears and packs of wolves to bring relief to Fort Duncan and express his finer (not at all randy) feelings to Sybil.

Like many a good Victorian yarn, the book ends with an incredible coincidence. This one concerns Sybil's birth. It turns out that she had been adopted many years before in the snowy Northern Territories by the good-natured (but merely captain) Mackintosh. Her true origins were, of course, much more refined and it turns out that there's a stately home waiting for her and her new husband Loraine back in England.

Kingston, who spent much of his youth in Portugal with his merchant father, started writing adventure stories in the 1850s. He churned out over 130 titles including With Axe and Rifle, Snow-Shoes and Canoes, Manco the Peruvian Chief and How Britain Rules the Waves. They were immensely popular and produced to a formula that mixed thrilling encounters in untamed places with the message of Empire and civilization as the Victorians understood it. I suspect that these stories were almost interchangeable - so much so that the cover on Frontier Fort looks as though it were originally designed for another of his titles, The Log House by the Lake.

The Frontier Fort is as much a vehicle as an entertainment. It conveys the message that Britain's global pre-eminence was achieved through indomitable rectitude and Christian righteousness. With its sequence of perilous encounters, its thrilling moments and its reassuring conclusion, this was probably a good read for an Edwardian boy. And though it was no match for the Good Book itself, there's a sense that the frontier in both is that same frightening space between salvation and presumed heathen despair.