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Manly virtues: Allan Quatermain instructs his men to fire on the enemy in an 1888 illustration

What misery to be a girl in a Boy’s Own novel. While the chaps sail catamarans and build campfires, scale volcanoes and outrun dinosaurs, clash swords and commandeer hot-air balloons, the girls have a dull old time of it. They are there to wear a white nightdress, be serially abducted and rescued, and make the tea.
When the boy hero of Richard Jefferies’s novel Bevis finds a girl on his supposedly deserted island, he and his friend Mark, who have been failing miserably to cook the ducks they’ve shot, appoint her their skivvy.

“Make her fetch the water,” they cry. “Chop the wood.” “Turn the spit.” “Capital; we wanted a slave!” “Just the thing.” “Hurrah!” “But it’s not so nice as a tiger.” “O! No!” “Nothing like.”

That is the lot of a girl in a Boy’s Own book: to cook the dinner and be less exciting than a tiger. Even the immortal Ayesha of H. Rider Haggard’s She, “awful vindictiveness” written on her features, is, for all her fearsome reputation, really only waiting around for the reincarnation of her aeons-lost lover to return. The native people who fear her wrath claim to worship women, but only, explains a tribesman, “up to a point, till at last they get unbearable, which they do about every second generation.” “And then what do you do?” asks our narrator. “Then we rise, and kill the old ones as an example to the young ones, and to show them that we are the strongest.”

If I were a proper feminist I’d be retrospectively raging at the misogyny, the gender stereotyping, the lack of equal opportunities presented by the golden age of boys’ adventure stories published between the 1860s and the First World War. I’d be calling for “trigger warnings” in the prefaces to Jules Verne, Richard Jefferies, Mark Twain, Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Hope and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “This book contains passages offensive to women.” And that’s before you’ve even started on the racial insensitivities of those incorrigible oppressors Haggard, Twain and Conan Doyle.

Twain’s unenlightened Tom Sawyer, to take one example, observes: “What a curious kind of a fool a girl is . . . they’re so thin-skinned and chicken-hearted . . . They ain’t got no backbone.”

That was in 1876. Were things any better by the time Anthony Hope came to write his sword-clashing, identity-swapping, boar-hunting Prisoner of Zenda in 1890? Hardly. When our red-headed hero’s sister-in-law has the temerity to speak her mind she is met with the patronising: “Bless her!”

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