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Soldiers of the Queen: Reading newspaper fiction of the South African War (1899-1902)

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Rawlinson-Mills, Elizabeth  ORCID logo


This article considers the status of ‘Tommy Atkins’ in popular and literary culture at the end of the nineteenth century. Drawing material from the short stories published in the illustrated weekly The Sphere in the first year of the South African War, I argue that newspaper fiction illuminates and contributes to the complex and changing relationships between society and the military, during a period of impassioned public engagement with a controversial conflict. I argue that earlier Victorian conceptions of ‘Tommy’ as a disreputable scoundrel were challenged during the conflict by fictional representations of soldiers which blur traditional distinctions of class and rank. In making my case, I demonstrate that the physical juxtaposition of fictional with non-literary content on the newspaper page can be read as a form of silent editorial commentary, contesting the notion that parallels and contrasts between proximate items are attributable to chance. I consider the Sphere’s short stories as meaningfully connected to one another, establishing relationships between stories in separate issues by Thomas Hardy, Marie Corelli and others, as well as between the Sphere’s stories and other texts, such as the popular play Tommy Atkins and Rudyard Kipling’s phenomenally influential poem ‘The Absent-Minded Beggar’. At a time when newspapers were under pressure to conform to a hegemonic pro-government narrative, I argue that the Sphere’s editor, Clement Shorter, found in fiction, and its presentation on the newspaper page, a space for disruptive and potentially subversive questions and counter-narratives.



Thomas Hardy, Anglo-Boer War, short stories, newspapers, colonial literature, popular culture, visual contexts, Tommy Atkins, Marie Corelli, Rudyard Kipling, masculinity, military

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Journal of Victorian Culture

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Oxford University Press (OUP)
This research was partially funded by a Postgraduate Scholarship from the Wolfson Foundation.