Heroic Failure and the British

Heroic Failure and the British
Stephanie Barczewski
Yale University Press 267pp £20

Stephanie Barczewski ponders the paradox that, in history, it seems that the worse a failure is, the more the British like it.

Major-General Wolfe and Vice-Admiral Nelson died in victory and this was applauded, but it was sacrifice for no point at all that was adored. An ill-equipped and fatal trudge through pack ice, or a venture into mosquito-infested jungle on a blind quest was the route to a statue erected by public subscription. In the explorations for the Northwest Passage or the source of the Nile, what was respected was ‘not accomplishment, but rather the amount of suffering that an explorer was deemed to have endured, we are told’.  Character mattered more than achievement to the British.

Barczewski offers an entertaining re-telling of such martial failures as the Charge of the Light Brigade, but also of its more lethal predecessor at Chillianwallah in Punjab in 1849. Largely forgotten tales are welcome, such as the almost comic confection of victory from disaster out of the debacle of the Battle of New Orleans (1815), which was presented as an achievement by the elevation of two dead ‘heroes’. Their memorials are in St Paul’s Cathedral.

It is a clue to the meaning of these events that no celebrated examples of heroic failure occurred in a war that the British lost and those involving exploration took place in contexts such as the Arctic, the Antarctic and interior of Africa that were not vital to the nation’s strategic interests. The Empire always triumphed in the end.

Barczewski believes Britain invented heroic failure to make the evils of empire-building palatable: ‘By presenting alternative visions of empire via heroic failure, they maintained the pretence that the British Empire was about things other than power, force and domination.’

This argument is not well made. Heroic Failure is short on contemporary examples of people expressing horror over the excesses of Empire.  That is unsurprising: at a time of brutality and hardship for most Britons, the suffering of natives who had resisted the ‘Onward March of Civilisation’ did not count for much. It is also notable that natives inflicted major defeats on British forces in Sudan, Afghanistan and South Africa, before the British triumphed with superior technology. These were efficient warriors, not harmless villagers who raced at Maxim guns with pointed sticks. Wars were brutal and there was no national hand-wringing over victories achieved abroad.

This is an entertaining and well-written book, but nowhere does Barczewski discuss the literary concept of tragic waste and the religious concept of triumph in death. These were most notably contributed to the national psyche by Shakespeare and Jesus respectively, neither of whom are mentioned. The emotional tones of the loss of promise and the belief that death can be conquered play through Victorian narratives of heroic failure, but here they are not emphasised. 

Jad Adams’ most recent book, Women and the Vote: A World History, has just been released as a paperback by Oxford University Press.

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