book cover imageHeroic Failure and the British
by Stephanie Barczewski.
Yale University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 280 pages, $40.

The unquiet ghost of the British Empire haunts the globe. Because of their empire, English is spoken in cities around the world, from Atlanta to Zanzibar. For almost five hundred years their soldiers, bureaucrats, teachers, and traders planted the Union Jack all over the world, carrying with them Anglicanism, the pound, and gunpowder. Surely, they must have had some tremendous victories, triumphs that sealed their authority. And yet the British seem only to remember their disappointments and failures. Stephanie Barczewski’s latest book, Heroic Failure and the British, suggests that defeats, retreats, and disasters are the best salve for an empire’s guilty conscience.

Barczewski tells the story of a few representative men—soldiers and explorers active during the nineteenth century. Their names might be familiar to modern Americans, in the way that a hundred overheard mentions can begin to feel like knowledge. Their struggles range across the globe, from battles in Asia, the conquest and exploration of Africa, to the search for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. From Mungo Park to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, every one of them failed in their mission and suffered death. And yet every one of them was valorized for their bravery, their courage, their essential Britishness.

Barczewski succeeds most in recounting these expeditions and battles. Every battle and voyage offers a phalanx of details to the historian, competing for attention, threatening to derail a narrative. But Barczewski always writes clearly and with an eye for broader consequence. She makes the disappearance of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin as haunting and fascinating today as it was for British subjects in the nineteenth century. She carefully details the desperate searches, the remains and artifacts discovered on the ice, and the reports of local Inuits. This story adds up to a disappearance as evocative and sad as the vanishing of the Roanoke Island colonists in the sixteenth century.

It’s a remarkable achievement to write confidently and accurately about everything from counter-insurgency in Africa and Afghanistan to the details of a century’s Arctic exploration. Yet Barczewski doesn’t want to write another catalogue of tragic heroes. She wants to prove a specific historical point: that heroic failure is neither a result of the British empire’s slow collapse in the twentieth century, nor did it help cause that collapse.

Rather, heroic failure achieved iconic status during the second half of the nineteenth century—the moment of the empire’s greatest success and power. The mythology of heroic failure “arose from British power and dominance” and from a need to distract their subjects from “real-life exploitative and violent aspects by emphasizing an idealized version of the nation’s character.” Barczewski claims that when the British saw “brave soldiers standing against overwhelming numbers of indigenous foes,” it would “counterbalance notions of the British as all-powerful.”

Barczewski tells the story of each travail, its inevitable failure, and the outpouring of public grief and piety over the noble British virtues represented by the fallen hero. She emphasizes that these exploits rarely produced any valuable scientific information and that, more often than not, the battlefield defeats were irrelevant to Britain’s ultimate strategic success. Next to blunders and poor planning, the words of poets and politicians seem overwrought, faintly ridiculous.

But if imperial exploits made the British queasy, then what kept the soldiers and explorers in the field? Surely explorers and soldiers didn’t intend to kill themselves just to make ambivalent British subjects feel better.

The question of why these men went afield might seem to be beyond the reach of the historian. Barczewski does not think so. The Arctic explorer Scott grew up in Barczewski’s period of heroic failure, and so she claims that “As he lay dying, he could therefore readily imagine his own fate, and his posthumous reputation” as heroic. This seems a rather bold claim about a man’s final moments. Scott knew that he and all his closest companions would die far from home, unburied. Yet in his last message he writes, “we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last.” Whatever else it is, this statement is not self-congratulatory. While she might be able to explain “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as a self-pitying moment of guilt, Barczewski fails to explain why a Light Brigade would charge in the first place.

It might seem that she doesn’t need to explain why these men behaved as they did, only the way the public reacted. She is ostensibly not so interested in their exploits as in the way the British made an altar of their corpses. But she claims that the mythology of heroic failure was part of the school of empire—it reached the young men who would one day command ships and regiments and expeditions. Moreover, she periodically quotes military or scientific authorities, who tended to see these heroic failures more as mishaps than tragedies. Why did penny-counting bureaucrats not deplore the waste? Why did average citizens continue to toss their sons into the maw of gallant failure?

For that matter, why did the British become guilt-ridden? Barczewski seems much more interested in recounting expeditions and battles than in examining the attitudes of citizens back home. She remarks that monuments became transformed from “a celebration of royalism to a celebration of heroism,” but that shift is left more or less unplumbed. She points us to footnotes after sweeping statements about the “need back home in Britain for narratives of empire that provided moral reassurance.” But to claim that heroic failure answered a need demands that she describe that need more fully.

She also neglects the lineage of “heroic failure.” The classical tradition is full of heroic failures—more commonly called tragic heroes. Classical philosophy, too, endorsed a version of heroic failure. The Stoics insisted that the world ran along, indifferent to human suffering, and the only wisdom was to die with dignity. What better example of imperial stoicism than the emperor Marcus Aurelius? His Meditations depict a man with the reins of empire in his hands, who nonetheless believes himself to be the victim of circumstance. It was popular reading in the British educated classes since the sixteenth century. Surely that’s important in this story?

Barczewski has mastered fine-hewn detail and can tell a marvelous story. But something always escapes her grasp. She recounts the chilling moment when the Terra Nova Expedition realized they were moving too slowly to reach safety. Lawrence Oates, who was suffering from severe frostbite, knew that he was the main drag on their progress. Rather than burden them any longer, he walked out into the punishing cold and died. Scott’s journal records Lawrence saying mildly, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Immediately thereafter, Barczewski writes “Oates’s sacrifice, however, could not save them.”

Of course it did not. But the generosity of his gesture is so great that to quibble over its success is to miss the point. History should not valorize pointless death, or encourage us to quaff down patriotic gore. Still, to see in these men little besides military and scientific dead ends is, in a sense, to indulge the imperial calculus of conquest. Did they win? Did they push the borders of British red a little further on the map?

Their stories were extraordinary, even to contemporaries, as instances of something greater than the typical tug of winning and losing. National pride needs its failures more than heroic triumphs, and self-sacrifice, whether justified or not, will always be the foundation of nationalism. Barczewski certainly did not have to throw yet another tribute on these graves, but she might have shed more light on why a powerful empire believed it was tragically weak.  

Greg Morrison lives in Virginia. He comes on Twitter as @exam_times.