"Books for Boys" Exhibition at Palace Green Library, University of Durham

From 27th September 2014 to 18th January 2015, a selection of editions from Helen’s comprehensive collection of Prussian cadet-school literature were displayed as part of an exhibition at Durham University’s Palace Green Library, entitled ‘Books for Boys: Heroism, Adventure and Empire at the Dawn of the First World War’. The exhibition was the first in a series of exhibitions linked to the national centenary commemoration of the First World War.

The exhibition explored boyhood during the earliest years of the twentieth century, and the cultural environment that shaped a generation, celebrating a golden age of books for children. In a world where patriotism and duty were often seen as the defining qualities of a manly character, thrilling tales of adventure, real-life heroes, spies and imaginary worlds were written to inspire those boys who would go on to fight in the First World War.

In order to illuminate the workings of these bellicose stories on both sides of the Channel, ‘Books for Boys’ compared literature from England and Germany in comparative perspective. From this point of view, the lionisation of life in the Royal Prussian Cadet Corps peddled by authors such as Johannes van Dewall, Paul von Szczepanski and Ernst von Wildenbruch provide an instructive parallel to English school- and adventure stories of the same period.

Jonathan Long, Professor of German at Durham University and one of the curators of the exhibition, examines the display case containing the cadet-school stories.

Works included in the exhibition included Paul von Szczepanski’s Spartanerjünglinge (Spartan Youths), Johannes van Dewall’s Aus meinen Kadettenjahren (Tales from my Cadet Days), and Ernst von Wildenbruch’s Das Edle Blut (Noble Blood), all of which were publishing sensations in Imperial Germany.

Helen also contributed a short essay, entitled Kadettengeschichten: Exploring the Prussian cadet-school story’, to the general-interest volume accompanying the exhibition, entitled Books for Boys: Literacy, Nation and the First World War (ed. Simon James). Other chapters include ‘Q is for Queen: The Reading Nation’ (Simon James); ‘The Adventures of Maja the Bee: A Strange Classic’ (Jonathan Long), and ‘Militarism in Britain? The Boy Scouts and the War Office before the Great War’ (Matthew Johnson).

The curators, Professor Simon James and Professor Jonathan Long, examine the displays prior to the exhibition opening (photographs courtesy of Julie Biddlecombe-Brown).