Heroic Failure and the British


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Stephanie Barczewski

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From the Charge of the Light Brigade to Scott of the Antarctic and beyond, it seems as if glorious disaster and valiant defeat have been essential aspects of the British national character for the past two centuries. In this fascinating book, historian Stephanie Barczewski argues that Britain’s embrace of heroic failure initially helped to gloss over the moral ambiguities of imperial expansion. Later, it became a strategy for coming to terms with diminishment and loss. Filled with compelling, moving, and often humorous stories from history, Barczewski’s survey offers a fresh way of thinking about the continuing legacy of empire in British culture today.

Stephanie Barczewski is professor of history at Clemson University and the author of Titanic: A Night Remembered, among other books. She lives in Greenville, SC.

'This is a thoughtful, very original and well argued book that reassesses the many links that have existed between episodes of failure on the one hand, and imperial power, heroism and masculinity on the other.' - Linda Colley, author of Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837

'This book deftly places a British tradition of "heroic failure" not as the exemplar of modesty or stoicism, but as an alibi of empire. In Barczewski's capable hands, oft-told stories such as Stanley's encounter with Livingstone, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Captain Scott's death in the Antarctic, and the "last stand" almost anywhere shine in a new light cast by imperial hubris. The result is a good read as edifying as it is entertaining.' - Peter Mandler, author of The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair

“The author has hit on a rich and fascinating subject…Heroic Failure has some sharp truths to tell about Victorian Britain”—John Carey, Sunday Times 

“Barczewski’s contention is compelling. By promoting an idea of empire as fundamentally about enlightening the natives and promoting trade – unlike the rapacity of Spain’s empire or the egomania of Napoleon – Britons were able to turn a blind eye to the fact that their empire too was built on subjugation and skeletons.”—Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

“A psychological history. Barczewski maps out trends in British thought and intertwines conjecture about where they have come from... I enjoyed the quest of it; and something about Barczewski evident and fervent anglophilia almost left me feeling quite proud of being Britis.h”—Hugo Rifkind, Times

“This is a very readable book, and it’s always nice to see imperial figures winkled out of their post-colonial shell for a wider audience… a neat idea that speaks to the current preoccupation with the cultural presence of empire in the RhodesMustFall campaign.”—Joanna Lewis, THES 

“Stephanie Barczewski, with all the post-colonial detachment that comes naturally to an American academic, gives a long and stirring list… she retells the old heroic tales with a narrative touch and a delicate irony which avoids condescension.”—Ferdinand Mount, London Review of Books

“An entertaining and well-written book.”—Jad Adams, History Today

“There is an impressive breadth of scholarship on display in Heroic Failure. Barczewski adds to an important conversation about the memorialization of national heroes.”—Hillary Buxton, H-Net

“A rollicking account of a moral quirk in British culture, one which can affect any powerful and aggressive nation.”—Books and Culture
ISBN: 9780300180060
Publication Date: March 22, 2016
280 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
54 b/w illus.