Apr 10, 2013

Jackanapes: Boyfriends in a Victorian Children's Story

When I was a kid in the 1960s, there were only a few books in the house, so I spent many hours leafing through the nine volume Junior Classics (1956), an anthology of antiquated stories that someone born before horseless carriages were invented thought that modern kids should read, such as Alice in Wonderland and King of the Golden River.

As a nine or ten-year old, I often found the words too hard, the references obscure, and the plots disturbing. Julia Horatia Ewing's Jackanapes (1883), from the ironically entitled Volume 5, Stories that Never Grow Old, certainly qualifies: it starts with villagers who live on the Green talking about a sexton "who would be ninety-nine come Martinmas, and whose father remembered a man who had carried arrows, as a boy, for the battle of Flodden Field."

Ok: I didn't know what a Green was, or a sexton, or Martinmas, or Flodden Field.

And when I skipped ahead to the end, Jackanapes, whoever that was, had died.  Depressing.

Years later, in my college Shakespeare class, I heard the word again: Jackanapes was the nickname of Sir William de la Pole, who appears in Henry VI.  So I returned to the story, and found a Victorian model of same-sex love: a Bart Simpson troublemaker and his friend Tony, weaker, more cautious, and described as "beautiful."  The two smoke cigars, get sick on a merry-go-round, and concoct schemes to get money to buy horses.

Fast forward twenty years, and they are British calvary officers (and not married).  In the heat of battle, Tony falls off his horse and breaks his leg.  The enemy is approaching fast, but Jackanapes rushes over and prepares to lift Tony onto his own horse.

"Jackanapes! It won't do. You must go on. Tell the fellows I gave you back to them, with all my heart. Jackanapes, if you love me, leave me!"

There was a daffodil light over the evening sky in front of them, and it shone strangely on Jackanapes' hair and face. He turned with an odd look in his eyes that a vainer man than Tony Johnson might have taken for brotherly pride. Then he shook his mop and laughed at him.

"Leave you? To save my skin? No, Tony, not to save my soul!"

Jackanapes then rescues Tony, though it means that he will die.

The rest of the novella involves the folk back home gossipping about Jackanapes' sacrifice, and the author moralizing about God and country.  But the gay subtext is strong, and clear, and survives the obscurity of the text.

Later I discovered that Victorian literature is filled with gay writers.  Julia Horatia Ewing was not among them.