For a man like Stanley, who needed to prove himself after his childhood rejection, mastering Africa was a test that could scarcely be bettered. The task would have an epic dimension, involving power, pride and, above all, endurance as he battled with the African environment and with his own human limitations. At the heart of the non-conformist Christian education of the workhouse had been the idea of redemption through suffering--becoming a new man. In the vastness of Africa, as ruler of his small party--away from the social distinctions of north Wales, from the greed and materialism of the slave-owning Deep South, from the helpless boy he had once been--there might emerge the new, perfected Stanley. He could so easily have spoken the words that Patrick White gave to Voss, the eponymous explorer hero of his masterpiece: 'To make yourself, it is also necessary to destroy yourself.'
To have been a great leader of African exploring expeditions in the anarchic last three decades of the nineteenth century required very unusual personal qualities--characteristics, in fact, that sensible, well-balanced modern men and women, leading safe lives, tend to find alarming: such as being inspired, fearless, obsessed, able to frighten, able to suffer, but also able to command love and obedience. Such men tended to be haunted by their longing to solve mysteries, by their dedication to a cause, or by the belief that God had sent them, or by their need to earn love and respect through the strength of their will. They are an extinct species, and all the more remarkable for that.
After Freud linked human behaviour with unconscious desires and unmasked the self-deception inherent in Victorian 'will-power', the well-informed came to mistrust other nineteenth-century virtues like 'duty' and 'sense of mission'. 'I was not sent into the world to be happy... I was sent for a special work,' wrote Stanley, and believed it. What was wrong with those explorers, we ask, knowingly, these days. And even if we acquit them of being the masochistic victims of their own thwarted impulses, books with men of action as their protagonists remain out of favour with sophisticated people. Failure to understand the mindset of a lost era has done much to limit our appreciation of Homeric lives like Stanley's. Disapproval of the adventurous hero began with the birth of English seriousness in the eighteenth century, and despite the subsequent popularity of Scott and Stevenson (and their less talented B-movie successors), the adventurer would never appeal to intellectuals of later generations. Only a blighted, self-doubting fictional specimen, like Conrad's eponymous Lord Jim, stood any chance. But Stanley was blighted too, very like Jim, by his inability to live up to his ideals. More modern still, Stanley failed to deny himself the fame he both craved and detested. For Stanley, adventure was not a secret failing, like reading pulp fiction in bed (which he sometimes did), but a Nietzschean confrontation that was the breath of life to him, a breaking away from the daily self he knew and could not endure, into a persona in which he could escape past humiliations, and stretch the boundaries of the human condition in denial of his own mortality.