Heroic Failure and the British by Stephanie Barczewski - review by Jan Morris

Jan Morris

It’s the Taking Part that Counts

Heroic Failure and the British


Yale University Press 267pp £20 order from our bookshop

As I see it, the argument of this most interesting, readable and generously provocative book is more or less as follows: the British, in the course of consolidating their worldwide empire during the 19th century, became conscious of the clash between what was good and what was bad about it. To emphasise its virtues, subconsciously one supposes, they made the most of the idea of heroic failures – imperialist exploits that, noble in themselves, if sometimes dubious in context, by their very lack of success somehow helped to justify the whole colossal enterprise and entered the psyche of the British nation. ‘Victory’, says Stephanie Barczewski, ‘truly was irrelevant, as heroic failure was no longer a consolation for defeat, but a positive ideal.’

Perhaps even into our own time, she suggests, the concept has softened the sadness of Britain’s decline as a world-beater. In evidence she recalls the wild popularity of Eddie the Eagle, a spectacularly unsuccessful British ski jumper who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Certainly, to this very day the

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