Secret Library

Edwardian Values: Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a glorious edition of the bestselling scouts’ manual

Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship has become one of a select subset of books: the bestseller which hardly anybody has read. If, as Mark Twain had it, a classic was a book everybody praises and nobody reads, Scouting for Boys is the book everybody buys but (virtually) nobody reads – at least, not these days. Yet the book is, along with the akela (the title lifted by Robert Baden-Powell from The Jungle Book by Kipling, a writer the Scout-founder admired), as synonymous with the Boy Scouts as the famous woggle. Indeed, Baden-Powell’s manual for his new movement, published in 1908, is reckoned to be the second biggest-selling English-language book of the twentieth century: until the post-war period, sales were exceeded only by those of the Bible in the English-speaking world.

Of course, unlike other bestsellers everyone buys but nobody reads, Scouting for Boys was once read in considerable numbers. And what is most revealing about picking up the book now is just how much of a ‘ragbag’ it is – the word is Elleke Boehmer’s, the editor of this edition which is a reissue of her 2004 one, Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection) – much like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, another ubiquitous how-to manual that adorned the bookshelves of pretty much every twentieth-century household, even those which didn’t own many books. (And interestingly, I’d note as an addendum to Boehmer’s informative introduction to this handsome edition from Oxford World’s Classics, Baden-Powell’s book shares with Beeton’s bestseller the fact that it was composed at high speed, from any materials the author had lying around – including, in both cases, the works of other writers which were cheerily ‘borrowed’ from, sometimes without full credit being given.)

Baden-Powell had become a national treasure following his role in the Siege of Mafeking during the Second Boer War, and Scouting for Boys is, on one level, a handbook equipping the British soldiers of tomorrow – servants of the British empire – with a grounding in useful military knowledge and techniques. And it’s worth detaching the word ‘scout’, in ‘boy scout’, from its narrow connotations of woggles, dyb-dyb-dybbing, and the rest, to recall that ‘scouting’, and the idea of the scout, summons first of all the notion of tracking and exploring. There’s a section in Scouting for Boys devoted to spoors and how to track them. But of course there was much more in the book than tips for ‘scouts’ or trackers. This is one of the most interesting parts of the whole book, although its range really is impressive, and a testament to the way Baden-Powell went about assembling suitable material – and ‘suitable’ appeared to mean virtually anything he found – for his new scouting manual.

So Scouting for Boys draws on newspaper cuttings, bits of his previous works, even extracts torn from adventure novels and works of travel writing. One of the most interesting parts of the book (for a literature enthusiast like me) comes at the end of each chapter, where Baden-Powell lists some books – especially literary works – which young readers may find enjoyable or useful as follow-up reading. So in the chapter on detection and hunting for clues, we find several Sherlock Holmes books recommended, along with ‘The Thinking Machine’, Jacques Futrelle’s Sherlockian creation, now largely forgotten. (If you haven’t heard of Futrelle, by the way, he’s well worth a Google. He died on board the Titanic, and in his most famous author portrait looks a little like Paul Sinha, the Sinnerman from ITV’s The Chase.)

And indeed, even more than Kipling’s work, one book seems to lie behind the inspiration for Scouting for Boys: J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Baden-Powell even named his son after the literary Boy Who Would Never Grow Up, and one of the curious tensions in Scouting for Boys, thoughtfully explored by Boehmer, is between scouting as a preparation for the adulthood to come (military service, or work in service of the Empire whether as a pen-pusher or simple adherent) and scouting as a way of making the most of childhood, of play and performance (another key aspect of the book), innocence and youth.

Then there is the remarkable material Baden-Powell left out, or rather the material which Baden-Powell initially included in the typescript but which never made it into the first edition, such as explicit warnings against what the Victorians called ‘self-abuse’ (presumably, because it would make the perpetrator go blind). But what is most revealing about this edition of the book, Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection), is how many unfashionable ideas that original 1907 edition contained – how many now outdated notions and attitudes did make it into the pages of that first edition. A number of these were subsequently removed, as Boehmer outlines, when the Boy Scout movement began to spread around the globe. There is a ‘Display’ in which John Nicholson, the hero of the Indian Mutiny, ‘orders a local Mehtab Singh to demonstrate his deference by removing his shoes’. Those who fail to show Britain the respect it deserves, as Boehmer notes, had to be taught a stern lesson in humiliation.

Scouting for Boys may not be read in huge numbers any more, but it remains a valuable record of Edwardian attitudes and its central ethos of play, practical skills, and its encouragement of reading remains all too relevant in an era where the internet and video games make the idea of sitting down and living one’s life almost entirely vicariously – in a virtually virtual manner – all too appealing for some, and all too easy.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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